Protesters urge MBTA to avoid cuts, fare hikes
BOSTON—Public transit riders and their advocates pleaded with the MBTA's board of directors on Wednesday to avoid or minimize fare hikes and service cuts that officials of the agency have said are inevitable.
The appeals came as the board voted to approve a preliminary $1.78 billion budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, but made no final decision on the exact level of cuts and fare hikes that will be necessary to close a $159 million operating deficit.
Officials said final recommendations would likely be made later this month, with the board facing an April 15 deadline to finalize the budget.
State Transportation Secretary Richard Davey and Jonathan Davis, acting general manger of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said in an open letter to T customers on Tuesday that fare increases and service cuts were unavoidable, despite the hardship that many riders say they will cause.
More than two dozen people, including senior citizens, the disabled, and advocates for low-income people, spoke during the public portion of Wednesday's board meeting at the state transportation building, their comments echoing many of those made during the 31 public meetings held around the MBTA service area over the past two months.
The T has proposed eliminating dozens of bus routes, ending late-night, weekend and commuter rail service, and increasing the cost of The Ride, a service for disabled passengers.
"The fare hike is too high, it would be a real hardship for many ... we also believed the service cuts are draconian and would leave residents that don't have cars without options," said Nancy Goodman, executive director of the Environmental League of Massachusetts.
Members of Occupy Boston, which held a 10-week vigil in Dewey Square last year, stood at the outset of the meeting and demanded public transportation remain "accessible to all of the 99 percent." Another large group held a noisy protest against the fare hikes and service changes outside the packed hearing room.
At one point during the meeting, a group calling itself the "Fast Five" and dressed in superhero costumes asked the board to consider `saving' the T by adopting alternative money-saving solutions such as renegotiating bank debt, tapping the state's unused snow removal funds and transferring control of Boston Harbor ferries and Silver Line service to the Massachusetts Port Authority.
Davey and Davis said later that officials were still considering many of the suggestions made by the thousands of riders who attended the slate of public meetings or submitted written comments.
"Their voices have been heard," said Davis. "We have gotten some suggestions that we may very well incorporate into our final recommendations."
Davey declined to speculate on the percentage fare increase the T would seek from the board. In January, officials presented two possible scenarios, one that would raise fares by 35 percent and another that would hike fares by 43 percent but with fewer service cuts. Officials have since stated that the final recommendation might include elements from both scenarios.
Davey said he was hopeful the MBTA would be able to use about $7 million in unused snow removal funds and about $5 million from its lease of the North Station parking garage to stave off some of the cuts. He also expressed support for transferring the Silver Line to Massport, a public authority that runs Logan International Airport and public terminals in the Port of Boston, and said officials would consider an off-peak pricing system for T fares.
"We're not taking anything on or off the table at this point," Davey said, while adding: "Clearly we have a huge gap we have to close."
Several speakers on Wednesday said it would ultimately be up to the Legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick to develop a long-term solution for the system's financial woes, much of which has been blamed on crippling debt.
"The Legislature sees an old MBTA and wonders why we should shove more money down the drain," said Stephen Kaiser, head of the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods, who called on transit officials to provide lawmakers with more reasons to provide support for the T.