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Higher-priced Ride

By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / July 2, 2012
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Wilhelmina Melrose said she would soon have to choose between paying for medication or shopping for food.

Marian MacLennan may no longer be able to browse the musty racks at thrift stores around Boston, an escape from isolation for the 90-year-old, who needs a walker to get around.

And for Judy Bugarin, going to church on Sunday has never been so costly.

The 62-year-old Somerville resident — like Melrose, MacLennan, and countless others in the region — usually get a lift from The Ride, the MBTA’s door-to-door car service for the elderly and the disabled.

Bugarin has depended on the cheerful drivers and their spacious sedans and buses every week since her 2009 diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a disease that has wracked her body’s immune system and robbed her of the ability to work, enjoy the outdoors, or travel more than a short distance on foot. At $2 per trip, The Ride has been her life line.

But a fare hike that went into effect Sunday doubled the rate, part of a package of increases and service cuts that will keep the debt-saddled tranportation agency solvent for one more year. Changes to The Ride are only a sliver of the MBTA’s massive financial reform plan, which raised fares an average of 23 percent system-wide. But for many who depend on The Ride, the round-trip cost of $8 could prevent them from continuing to live full lives.

“It’s just too much,” said Bugarin, who subsists on disability payments, and lives with her 37-year-old daughter, who is recently unemployed. “I can barely afford $80 a month. Now its going to be $160.”

While users of The Ride felt the sharpest sting, subway riders interviewed at Ruggles Station said the increases at the fare gate posed hardships. Charliecard users will pay $1.50 for buses and $2 for train service, while customers who use cash will pay $2 for a bus ride and $2.50 for trains.

“It’s really affect[ing] people – not the rich people, the poor people,” said Karl Bob Joseph, of Randolph. “Some people have to do like two, three jobs to even survive.”

Joseph, who is unemployed, said he relies on the train to job-hunt and for personal business. Sometimes, he said, he finds himself a quarter short and has to walk home.

Fallon Morris, 22, who was leaving the station with her two daughters, age 1 and 3, said she plans to take the cash from her diaper budget to cover the new cost.

“People can barely pay what they was paying,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

Others said the T’s value can’t be beat.

“I’d rather have fares go up and have the T fully funded and working than not have it,” said Ryan Barber, 32, of Somerville who said he rides the T two or three times a day as he headed toward the Kenmore Station platform after he paid his fare .

Mark Urrea, 29, ran a cost-benefit analysis while deciding if the $15 per month increase still meant the T is his best choice for transportation. He said the answer was easily yes.

“It’s not really a big deal,” said Urrea, an architect who commutes every day on the T and was taking the Green Line to Cleveland Circle. “I’m hoping the fare increases will result in better service.”

For many seniors and people with disabilities, the Ride fare increase represents a deep financial hit that must be shouldered by a vulnerable population, many of whom are struggling to survive a roiling job market, personal medical complications, and isolation in their homes.

Carolyn Villers, executive director of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, said the increased Ride fare was designed to tamp down costs and ridership, not to collect more revenue so the service could become more profitable. The group’s members, including Melrose and Bugarian, have been consistently outspoken during the slew of community meetings held throughout the T’s service area leading up to the April vote by the T’s board of directors to enact the hike.

Villers said the Ride services are run by private companies contracted by the T, who are paid $40 per trip. Fewer trips in the future — to the tune of 665 less per day, or more than one-tenth of overall users, according to the MBTA — means less money paid to the companies, eventually reaping longterm savings for the transportation agency, Villers said.

“They’re helping their bottom line by keeping people imprisoned in their own homes,” Villers said.

MacLennan, who lives in a complex for seniors near City Hall, said she may no longer be able to afford trips to the Good Will Store on Commonwealth Avenue, where she likes to peruse for clothes and inexpensive furniture. She loves to pick out framed prints for her walls and items such as the stone elephant and the glass fish she bought to brighten the interior of her small apartment.

While isolation, loneliness, and depression take a toll in their own right, other seniors said the new cost alone will force them to make difficult choices that were previously unthinkable.

Melrose, 61, said she lives on roughly $800 in monthly Social Security disability payments. Blind since her 30s and diagnosed with diabetes more than a dozen years ago, life is complicated enough for the Roxbury resident, she said.

“You can imagine what I’m living on at the end of the month after I’ve taken out for bills,” Melrose said in a phone interview. “And The Ride has the audacity to go up. It’s not easy. Some days you got to make a choice. ‘OK, am I going to get these medicines, or am I going to go to this appointment?’”

Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com. Globe correspondents Matt Woolbright and Evan Allen Globe contributed to this report.

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