The CharlieTax

With the new year came a 33% fare increase on the T. That’s just my rough estimate; the Charlie system is so baroque that it would take me days to explain the price of a single subway ride—if I understood it myself, which I don’t. Instead, I have a monthly Outer Express Bus Pass, which lets me ride the bus to the ‘burbs and any other MBTA vehicle that costs less than the bus to the ‘burbs. Since the bus to the ‘burbs went up to $5.00 (each way), that covers just about everything.

When I say the bus went up to $5, that is itself only a rough estimate. It’s going to take a few thousand words to explain the price of the bus to the ‘burbs, so you may want to run away screaming now to save time. Seriously. I mean it. Don’t come crying to me if your brain explodes from reading further. You have been warned.

The bus to the ‘burbs is technically $4, plus a $1 CharlieTax which is assessed if you pay with a CharlieTicket (see explanation below) or cash (note that T tokens still count as $1.25 in cash, even though you can’t buy them anymore), but not if you pay with a CharlieCard (which is the high-tech RFID card—you can get blank ones for free at major stations, while supplies last, but getting $4 onto it afterwards using an ornery Charlie Fare Vending Machine that will probably double-charge your credit card is your problem).

If you are some sort of special class of rider, such as a child, student, senior citizen, or someone who’s transferring from the subway or a local bus (but not the commuter rail or a commuter boat and probably not an express bus—see explanation below) with a CharlieCard (but not a CharlieTicket—see explanation below), then you have a whole other fare schedule for the bus to the ‘burbs. You can get this fare schedule from most schedule kiosks. (You can’t get a new bus schedule for the 66 for love or money, but you can get a fistful of fare schedules.)

If you’re not transferring but just riding local within the ‘burbs, then you revert to the Local Bus fare schedule, which would be $1.25 plus the Charlie tax for riding a local bus, whatever that may be. (See below for when you actually pay for riding the bus in the ‘burbs.) I have a pass so that’s all I can tell you about special fares (but see below).

Please note that here “CharlieTicket” does not mean any old CharlieTicket that comes out of a land-based Charlie Fare Vending Machine when you feed it your money. Here “CharlieTicket” means “a stored-value CharlieTicket” as opposed to a monthly pass CharlieTicket. Rules for the latter are different—see below.

“But wait!” you may say. “I thought monthly passes went on the new high-tech CharlieCard. What the frell is a monthly pass CharlieTicket?”

Well, dear reader, the CharlieTicket-Pass is one of the dirty little secrets of the whole Charlie behemoth. Due to technical difficulties beyond the understanding of us mere mortals (but see speculation below), most kinds of passes cannot yet be put onto a CharlieCard. Instead, they go on a paper (but see below) CharlieTicket. And you thought that just because you’re shelling out $200 a month to the T for this pass they’d give you their fancy new tech instead of a piece of paper? Welcome to the MBTA. You must be new here.

If you have some other kind of CharlieTicket pass, such as the Inner Express Bus Pass, and you want to go to the Outer ‘Burbs, theoretically you should only have to pay the difference between Inner Express prices and Outer Express prices. The little schedule of prices from the MBTA that explains exactly how much you’re supposed to pay, if you use a CharlieCard.

What this means for the average express bus commuter is that the tables of transfers to and from the Inner or Outer Express Bus shown on the schedule of fares is a tissue of lies. Nobody in their right mind is putting $200 onto a CharlieCard in order to ride the $5 Outer Express Bus this month ($5 x 2 ways x 5 days a week x 4 weeks a month = $200). Instead they’re buying monthly passes ($129 for Outer Express), and because those passes are CharlieTickets, not CharlieCards, they cannot transfer to or take a more expensive route. They have to pay full fare in addition to the $129 the T has already collected from them.

I know that sounds highly theoretical and your brain exploded two paragraphs ago, but in the space of three business days I’ve already witnessed at least two failed attempts to use an Inner Express Bus pass in the Charile Fare Box on the Outer Express Bus. The machine rejects the pass out of hand, and the unfortunate commuter is expected to pay $5 at that point. The CharlieCard transfer cost is supposed to be $1.20, according to the fare schedule. (Please note that said fare schedule does not include the CharlieTax that you ought to pay on your transfer if you use a non-pass CharlieTicket or cash to supplement your original CharlieCard value rather than using more value off your CharlieCard. It’s unclear which of these payment methods is expected or even possible.)

Thus far the drivers have just let people with an Inner Express Bus pass off the Outer Express Bus, thereby avoiding lynching, physical damage to the fragile Charlie Fare Box, or (on the commuter boat) drownings.

“But wait!” you may say. “You don’t pay when you get off the bus. You pay when you get on.”

Yes, dear reader, this is another dirty little secret of FrankenCharlie. Just as the original Charlie had to pay to get out at Jamaica Plain, and as modern Red Line riders had to pay to get out at Quincy Adams and Braintree until January 1st, now we Outer Expressers have to pay when we get off the bus, but only inbound. Outbound we pay when we board. (There are only two directions on the MBTA—inbound, which is towards downtown Boston, and outbound, which is away from downtown Boston.)

“Ow, my brain!” you may say. “That makes less sense than Charile Fare Vending Machines running WindowsXP.”

I agree, dear reader. I had heard of the FrankenCharileTicket-Pass before January 1st (but see below), but when I first boarded my Outer Express Bus inbound on Tuesday night and the driver had his hand over the bus’s CharlieMachine, even I was confused. So was the crowd of people waiting for the BurbBus when we got downtown, who had to wait for us all to go through the Charlie Fare Box backwards, out the front door of the bus, before they could go through Charlie forwards, in the front door of the bus. Gone are the days when we reverse-commuters slipped out the back door as the scary suburbanites were crowding in the front.

As discussed in previous posts, any Charlie transaction takes at least seven times longer than under the old collection system, and everyone gets on and off at the same stop downtown, especially at night, and especially now that the other option involves waiting for 40 other people to be processed through Charlie. You can walk to the next two stops quicker than that, and—this being an express bus—there are only those two other stops.

So you, dear reader, and those 40 people standing outside in the cold in January are wondering, “What the frell?” I have a theory about CharlieCards vs. FrankenCharlieTicket-passes and paying when you get off the express bus inbound. Recall the kinds of passes that you can’t put on a CharlieCard but have to go on a FrankenCharlieTicket-pass: commuter rail, commuter boat, outer express bus, and inner express bus.

My theory is that Charlie is a short-range system. If you are not actually in Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, or Newton when you tap your CharlieCard to the RFID reader, then Charlie cannot connect to the mothership to tell it that you’ve already paid $4 and you get a free transfer to the subway 20 minutes from now (40 if the traffic is bad).

If you’re in Providence boarding the commuter rail, or if you’re in Hull getting on the commuter boat, or if you’re in the ‘burbs flagging down an Outer Express Bus, Charlie cannot hear you. Never mind transferring—Charlie cannot even verify that your CharileCard has a pass on it. So no CharlieCard for you!

Instead, you get a little paper FrankenCharileTicket-pass. If I sound bitter about the paper thing, it’s because I am. I tried to buy an old-fashioned plastic CharlieTicket pass (not to be confused with the thicker plastic CharlieCard) on December 31st, and no one would sell me one. I called the MBTA itself, and they said I had to buy my pass from the Charlie Fare Vending Machines. I knew enough about Charlie to know the machines vend little pieces of paper with magnetic strips on them. That’s not a pass, I thought. That’s not going to survive January in Boston.

Nevertheless, I had to get to the burbs on Tuesday, so eventually I bought the little $129 piece of paper that’s supposed to survive daily use in the snow and rain for 31 days. And then on Tuesday I saw someone with an old-fashioned plastic FrankenCharlieTicket-pass for the Outer Express Bus.

I was good. I didn’t kill him for his pass and dump his body out the bus window onto I-93. I just asked him where he got it. He said he’d ordered it on-line (despite the breakdown of the MBTA website). The same MBTA, needless to say, that told me there were no more plastic FrankenCharlieTicket-passes and that I had to get a paper one out of a vending machine. If they don’t know how Charlie works, what hope is there for us?

And that, dear reader, is but one tiny corner of the Charlie system, as it affects the non-Green Line portion of my commute. I have already predicted that ridership will plummet under Charlie’s regime, but now I’d like to add a prediction that the homicide rate in Boston will rise this year.

4 Responses to “The CharlieTax”

  1. Peter Davis Says:

    And the irony there is that people ride the T to avoid the frustration of driving. :o

  2. Eric Says:

    Take a breath.

    Then go get a Charlie Card and put your next monthly pass on it. It can store *both* a pass and some cash value (should you need, say, a bus pass but also an occasional subway ride).
    There’s no call for you to have a (paper) Charlie Ticket at all. Then you’ll have a fully replaceable $129 piece of RFID to carry around that can be automatically updated at the first of each month with your new pass. No more going down to the machines or the booths at all. You always pay the cheapest fare, and it’s about 4000x faster and more reliable to board.
    Gee, you’d almost think they were stacking the decks to get people to use the thing…

    By the by, there’s no magic short-range mothership transmission, there’s simply a timestamp stored on the Charlie Card when you tap it…thus the T is indeed assuring you have the time to get your free transfer by having you tap on the way *out* of long rides.

  3. Jemima Pereira Says:

    I’m breathing fine, thanks, Eric. It seems that your brain exploded before I mentioned that you cannot put an Outer Express Bus pass onto a CharlieCard. Try it yourself at a Fare Vending Machine. The machine will inform you that your pass cannot go onto a CharlieCard; do you want a CharileTicket instead? Likewise for Inner Express, Commuter Rail, and Commuter Boat passes.

  4. Ron Newman Says:

    Jemima’s right in response #3. The Inner and Outer Express bus passes are not currently available on CharlieCard. This is supposed to change some time this summer when the Commuter Rail gets fitted for CharlieCard.

    Your $129 Outer Express bus pass, even though it’s on a CharlieTicket, is good on any bus, subway, streetcar, Zone 1A commuter rail trip, or Inner Harbor Ferry. Take as many rides as you want, transfer as many times as you want, it should work.

    You cannot use an $89 Inner Express bus pass plus “the difference in cash” on an Outer Express bus route. Nor can you use a LinkPass or a Local Bus Pass. The T has eliminated all “pay the difference in cash” fares with this month’s fare increase.