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MBTA calls for 23 percent fare hike, some cuts

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press / March 28, 2012
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BOSTON—Bus and subway fares would rise an average 23 percent and there would be some reductions in service as part of final recommendations outlined Wednesday by MBTA officials to close a deficit in the debt-ridden Boston-area transit system. The changes called for under the plan would be less drastic than earlier scenarios that projected fare hikes of up to 43 percent and more extensive service cuts.

The plan, which will be presented for approval next week to the board of directors of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, "reflects the voices of our passengers but also our fiscal reality," said Jonathan Davis, acting General Manager of the MBTA.

In addition to the fare hikes and service cuts, the proposal to close the T's projected $159 million deficit relies on $61 million in one-time revenues, including a $51 million transfer from a trust fund supporting environmentally-friendly transportation projects that would require legislative approval.

"We can't pull any more rabbits out of our hat," said state Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey, who warned the MBTA faces another deficit of about $100 million next year that could necessitate more fare hikes and service cuts.

"Unless something changes we are going to be back here in a year," he said.

Gov. Deval Patrick also endorsed the T's plan as a short-term fix for the system, which serves about 1.3 million daily riders, as a way to avoid "drastic service cuts for people who depend on the T every day."

He called on the Legislature to find a long-term funding solution not only for the MBTA but for what he called a "broken transportation system" in Massachusetts.

The final plan would save the majority of weekend commuter rail service as well as most ferry service in Boston Harbor, both of which had been targeted for elimination under the earlier scenarios presented by transit officials. But passengers who ride commuter rail or ferries would see higher average fare increases than bus and subway riders.

The proposal calls for about $15 million in service reductions, including the elimination of four weekday bus routes. Other buses would run less frequently or have their routes altered.

"We do understand that even these modest service reductions will affect people and we appreciate that," Davis said.

Officials said they listened and took to heart feedback from thousands of riders who attended more than 30 public hearings or submitted written comments to the MBTA. Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey said the overwhelming sentiment of passengers was that they would prefer to pay more than see service cut substantially.

Under the plan, bus fares for passengers using CharlieCards would rise from the current $1.25 to $1.50, and subway fares would jump from $1.70 to $2 dollars.

Senior citizens and students would enjoy less generous discounts, paying half the base fare for buses and subways rather than the current one-third. The plan would also double the cost for most users of The Ride, a service for disabled passengers, from $2 to $4.

"These hikes will most hurt seniors, students, low-income residents, people with disabilities, and communities of color," said Kristina Egan, executive director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of groups that had sought alternatives to fare hikes and service cuts.

Egan said the organization was pleased that the T was proposing less drastic service reductions, but said the fare hikes were "too steep and too fast," and called on the Patrick administration and Legislature to do more to close the funding gap.

A crowd of about 100 or more chanting and shouting protesters jammed a meeting of the MBTA board's finance committee on Tuesday, forcing the panel to abruptly adjourn a meeting that had been called to discuss the budget and other matters.

Protesters did not rule out similar actions at future board meetings. By law, the board must approve a final budget by April 15.

The MBTA estimates that the plan, if adopted, could reduce overall ridership on the system by about 5 percent.

The last fare increase was Jan. 1, 2007, making Boston one of the only major U.S. systems that hasn't boosted fares over the last five years.

Transportation officials have blamed much of the system's financial woes on crushing debt, including debt from the massive Big Dig highway project in Boston. Roughly 30 percent of the agency's budget goes to repay $5.5 billion in borrowing racked up over many years -- rising to more than $8 billion with interest -- making it the nation's most indebted transit system.

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