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No love in Framingham for MBTA proposals hiking fares, cutting service

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  February 15, 2012 08:00 AM

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State Sen. Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, addresses MBTA officials in Framingham last night on potential fare hikes and service cuts.

MBTA officials felt no love in Framingham last night as local residents, state legislators, and advocacy groups tore apart both proposed scenarios raising fares and cutting services to save the organization from a projected $161 million deficit next fiscal year.

Approximately 100 people filled Framingham Town Hall on Valentine’s Day to rail against the proposals, both of which eliminate weekend commuter rail service and stop commuter trains after 10 p.m. on weekdays.

Under the first plan, bus fares for CharlieCard holders would rise from $1.25 to $1.75, while T fares would rise from $1.70 to $2.40. Parking fees would increase 28 percent.
Under the second proposal, bus fares would rise from $1.25 to $1.50, while T fares would rise from $1.70 to $2.25. Parking fees would increase 20 percent.

Last week, the MBTA's Advisory Board representing communities served by the agency offered a third plan that would limit fare hikes to 25 percent and get other state agencies as well as major non-profits, universities and public attractions to shoulder some of the deficit. Though T officials promised a review of the new proposal, the more draconian measures are still on the table.

It's those proposals that people addressed at the Framingham hearing.

Charles Planck, senior director of MBTA strategic initiatives, said that the organization hoped to reach a realistic and plausible scenario combining factors in both proposals – “Scenario X” – after hearing public input from 24 regional areas.

Charlie Ticotsky, speaking on behalf of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said the cuts would mostly affect the young, elderly, disabled, and poor families.

“I believe both scenarios have negative repercussions, and neither are acceptable,” Ticotsky said. “This would financially burden consumers, worsen traffic congestion, and damage the environment.”

Caraline Levy, a Framingham resident and mother, said she and her family of four usually take the train into Boston for recreational outings, but that steep fares multiplied by four people would discourage her from using rapid transportation.

“It’s much easier and cheaper to hop on the Pike, but I don’t want to drive, and it’s bad for the environment,” Levy said. “But when it’s so expensive, it gives the wrong incentive, especially for families.”

Karen Dempsey, chair of the Framingham Disability Commission, said she was vehemently opposed to fare increases for the RIDE, a federally mandated and MBTA-provided service to shuttle disabled customers door-to-door, under the first scenario.

Under the scenario, rides would increase from $2 to $12 for MetroWest users, since they would fall under a category labeling them “premium,” or more than ¾ of a mile away from MBTA fixed route service.

Under the second proposal, premium riders would pay $5.

Dempsey said she takes a RIDE car to Boston one to three times per week for work or doctor appointments, and that such sharp fare increases would be impossible to afford on a fixed-income budget.

“I couldn’t afford a taxi, and I can’t just hop in anybody’s car and get to my doctor appointments,” Dempsey said, noting that almost 70 percent of disabled people are unemployed and on a set income.

Framingham resident Neil Lipson, a professional musician, said he commutes to the Boston area nearly 200 times per year in a RIDE car for music gigs.

“This is not affordable – an increase from $2 to $12 is six times more, compared to the 43 percent increase for buses. This could be considered as discrimination to the handicapped folk,” Lipson said.

Lipson said he would not be able to lug his 40-pound horn case on the bus or train due to his disabled condition.

“What if I can’t get to work? If I can’t get to work, then I could lose my house, and I don’t want to have to move out of town,” Lipson said.

Planck said that RIDE costs have tripled since 2003 due to increased operating costs and ridership growth.

State legislators also criticized the proposals, drawing attention to commuter cuts. Carolyn Dykema, a Holliston Democrat, said she has received numerous calls from her constituents, who use three different MetroWest area commuter rail stations.

“I don’t think it makes sense in the short term, and I don’t think it makes sense in the long term, especially for the MetroWest, which is the economic engine of our commonwealth,” Dykema said.

She said the ticket rises and service cuts will result in more vehicular traffic on an already outdated transportation infrastructure.

“This is not a win for the region, and is not conducive to expand opportunity here,” Dykema said. “I stand to work closely with you to find a solution that is fair and solves a long-term problem.”

State Sen. Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, said in fiscal year 2011, there were 570 average daily commuter rail riders after 10 p.m., and 969 people commuting over the course of a weekend.

“These cuts will isolate our area, and our residents and commuters will be stranded with no alternatives,” Spilka said.

Spilka said one of her own staffers, a Franklin resident, would be forced to pay nearly $1,000 more per year in monthly commuter rail passes, and would be stranded on nights when the senator needs her staff to work after 10 p.m.

“I would consider this a severe pay cut for her and others in her situation,” Spilka said.

She also said that increases would add to the Massachusetts Turnpike every morning, as well as increasing congestion, traffic, and negative environmental impacts.

“[This] is the exact opposite of the direction we’re trying to go,” Spilka said.

Planck said that commuter rail riders typically pay an average of $3.60, when the actual operating cost per rider comes to $7.58, and that the MBTA seeks to cut travel times and days that are usually underutilized.

Local town officials also see the proposed scenarios negatively. Joshua Ostroff, Natick Board of Selectmen member, said the board vote unanimously Feb. 6 to oppose the service cuts and ticket increases in a formal letter to the MBTA.

“This is bad news for Natick, and for the many people who rely on reasonably-priced transportation,” Ostroff said. “We need to be expanding mobility to be competitive as a state. We cannot be pulling back on basic infrastructure.”

Ostroff said that cutting commuter rail services would hurt Natick, a town that attracts reverse commuters from the city.

“First, jobs that people depend on public transportation to get to would be less attractive, because the cost of being an employee went up,” Ostroff said. “Second, it makes it harder to attract companies to the region when there is not a reliable transportation network to get people back and forth.”

Ed Carr, MetroWest Regional Transit Authority director, said while MBTA cuts would not directly affect local bus business, commuter rail cuts would hurt the MWRTA since the service earns much revenue from shuttling residents to commuter terminals.

Carr said the MWRTA does not plan on increasing fares for their own local RIDE service. However, he said there could be a decrease in ridership if service users decide the new MBTA version is too expensive, since it transfers onto the local system.

“It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get people to ride public transportation, and once we find a way to give them a disincentive, it’s next to impossible to get them back again,” Carr said.

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Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jreiss.globe@gmail.com

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