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T to end commuter rail’s odd free rides

System replacing punch card after reported abuse

By Eric Moskowitz and Billy Baker
Globe Staff / April 9, 2012
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For years, it’s been an open secret on the commuter rail. Buy a 12-ride punch card, and you can milk it for 14, 15, even two dozen rides.

Sometimes, it’s crowding on rush-hour trains, conductors too busy to reach everyone. Sometimes, it’s human error, errant punches by fast-moving hands. And sometimes, it’s done with a wink and a nod, the same box punched over and over, for the same people.

Those free rides are coming to an end. On July 1, the T plans to retire the 12-ride pass and its six-month expiration, replacing it with a 10-ride pass good for a mere 30 days - a lesser-known provision in the package of fare increases and service changes enacted last week, and taking effect July 1.

“It’s become clear over the years that for some people, there’s an expectation that you’ll get more than 12 rides out of a 12-ride ticket, and that’s something that we needed to address,’’ said Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the T.

The punch cards, depending on the line or destination, cost $20.40 to $99. The T sold $18.1 million of them last year; if each one enabled two free rides - a conservative estimate, according to those who boast of it and rail against it online - that’s $3 million.

No small sum, but a rounding error for an agency with a $1.7 billion budget.

But every dollar the T loses in fares must be made up with ad sales and tax support.

And free rides on the 12-ride pass are particularly infuriating for those with monthly commuter rail passes ($59 to $265; soon, $70 to $329), who prepay for unlimited rides that cannot be stretched beyond their month of use.

Fare evasion in all its forms - slipping on the back of a crowded Green Line trolley above ground, piggy-backing at station fare gates, and especially riding gratis on the pricey commuter rail - was a frequent complaint at the hearings the MBTA held across the region earlier this year.

“Many angry persons stood there and said, ‘I see it all the time. If you collected the fares that you’re entitled to, you wouldn’t have to ask for that kind of money.’ The finances are more complicated than that, but it’s a great way to put faith into the system,’’ said Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents cities and towns served by the T and which supports the end of the 12-ride pass. “Everyone who rides commuter rail regularly thinks the people who have 12-ride passes are getting away with something.’’

At South Station on Saturday, regular commuter rail riders smiled knowingly when asked about the punch card hustle, though none would ’fess up to being a part of it. But if it was wrong, or who was wrong, was a matter of opinion.

“It doesn’t bother me if they can get away with it,’’ said Amanda Holcomb, who was waiting for the train to Kingston. “If they don’t have the right controls in place, people will take advantage. They find loopholes in everything. Personally, I would never do it. But . . .’’

Many brought up the expense of the commuter rail, and with the big price jump there was sympathy for riders looking to trim costs, even if it was at the expense of the entire system.

“I see them do it all the time, but it’s a lot of money to ride the commuter rail,’’ said Eva Bozewicz, an 18-year-old from Wellesley. “Maybe it should offend my moral senses, but it doesn’t.’’

For people making a choice not to drive, Shannon Alford of Cambridge said, making it cheap is what makes it attractive. If people cut a few corners, she said, it didn’t bother her one bit.

But Seana Anderson was not buying such arguments.

“It bothers me,’’ she said as she read a newspaper below South Station’s departure board. “Look at the abundance around us. We get great service and we should pay for it. Even if people have this philosophical idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, that’s no way to get equality in society.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com. Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.

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