BOSTON — Average fares paid by riders on the area's cash-strapped transit system could increase by nearly 10 percent in July under one of two proposals outlined by officials on Monday.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is projecting a $242 million operating deficit in the next fiscal year.
The MBTA's control board, in its first meeting of the new year, advanced two of four fare options presented by transit officials. One calls for an average system-wide hike of 6.7 percent, the other 9.8 percent. The increases would vary widely among riders, depending on the mode of transportation they use and whether they buy monthly passes.
A final decision on fares would not be made until after a series of public meetings are held.
"I know there has been some concern that we're turning first to fares to close the budget gap, and we're not," state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said. "We're actually turning last to fares."
Pollack cited ongoing efforts to reduce costs and tap other sources of revenue, such as parking fees, advertising and real estate transactions.
The MBTA also promised to step up efforts to collect all the fares currently owed. T officials acknowledged Monday that they did not know how much money the system loses each year through fare evasion, such as riders who board through rear doors of above-ground Green Line trains without buying tickets.
The smaller of the two fare options was estimated to raise $33.2 million while reducing the operating deficit by $9.8 million. The larger proposal was projected to raise $49 million while lowering the deficit $26 million.
Under both proposals, monthly pass-holders would see a larger percentage increase than riders who buy individual trips, but officials said the T's monthly passes would still be cheaper than other U.S. systems such as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Pollack said erasing the operating deficit is critical to fixing the aging system, which was badly exposed during a brutal stretch of winter weather last year. State funds now used to cover deficits could instead be used to pare down a maintenance backlog, called a state of good repair backlog, estimated at $7.3 billion, she added.
The urgent need to modernize the system was on display Monday, Pollack noted, when a disabled train slowed morning commuters on the Orange Line and a track problem backed up the Blue Line.
Groups that advocate on behalf of riders are urging the MBTA to postpone or at least limit fare hikes until service is improved. Some legislators, including Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg, have argued that a 2013 state law bars the MBTA from raising fares by more than 5 percent every two years.
"We're concerned that the higher you drive the rates, the more people get off the trains and off the buses and back onto the roads so everybody loses in that scenario so you have to proceed with extreme caution," Rosenberg said.
Associated Press writer Steve Leblanc contributed to this story.