Solving the state’s transportation woes will involve major upgrades to the rail network, which shuttles thousands of commuters in and out of Greater Boston every day. But as state transportation planners evaluate what needs to be done, the think tank MassINC contends the state has to look at making commuter rail fares more affordable to avoid shutting out low- and- moderate-income riders.

The problem is most serious in Massachusetts’ so-called “gateway cities”, including Lawrence, Haverhill, Salem, Lowell and Lynn on the North Shore. MassINC issued a report in August citing what has long been a “spatial mismatch” between urban neighborhoods and suburban job centers. That mismatch “has reduced wages, lowered labor force participation, and distorted labor markets in other ways that have been especially harmful to communities of color,” according to the report.

When people in neighborhoods don’t have the means to get to where the jobs are, studies show historically lower earnings potential and fewer opportunities. Commuter rail does serve many of these neighborhoods, but rail fares “effectively price out most residents” of gateway cities, the report said.

“As a resident of Lawrence who commutes to Boston daily, I can attest,” said Juana Matias, COO at MassINC, in the report. “My neighbors aren’t able to take advantage of trains that stop in our city because we’ve set the fares well beyond their means.”

The study’s co-author, Tracy Corley, said many families “haven’t benefited from the state’s impressive economic gains,” and lower rail fares could change that by “increasing access to jobs, education, and quality healthcare across the state...”

Given the expense and complexity of improving public transit in Massachusetts, the idea of lowering fares for some riders might seem counter-intuitive. But public transit should be for everyone, and the payoff by providing gateway city residents affordable commutes could well pay off as their job and education opportunities improve.

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