MBTA considers price increases, other changes for disability service

Activists are urging the T to keep prices stable.

The MBTA is considering price increases on its paratransit service, The Ride.
The MBTA is considering price increases on its paratransit service, The Ride. –The Boston Globe

Before MBTA leaders began a scheduled discussion about the finances of its paratransit service, The Ride, several of its users stood before them Monday to urge them to keep prices stable and all existing service in place.

Ann Stewart, a 91-year-old member of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, said she supports some potential cost-saving options for The Ride during the public comment period at the start of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board meeting.

“But we are also outraged to learn a fare increase equal to the devastating increase of 2012 and cuts to the current service area are also presented,’’ Stewart said.

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Stewart was joined by about a dozen other members of the group, who held signs reading “We remember 2012.’’ In 2012, fares for The Ride were raised from $2 to $4, launching a protest by some riders. Eventually, the prices were decreased to $3.

Increased prices and service cuts for The Ride were among the options put on the table by T officials later in Monday’s meeting, during a presentation on the service.

The Ride, a car and van service operated by private contractors, costs the MBTA more than $45 per passenger trip, compared to $2.07 for other modes of service. In 2015, The Ride provided more than 2.1 million trips to riders in 60 communities, who were eligible to use it under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the presentation.

The Ride is expected to cost the T $108 million to operate next year. Michael Lambert, deputy administrator with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s rail and transit division, said the T could reduce costs by as much as $46 million through a variety of measures.

None of Monday’s ideas were suggested as policy, but were presented to give the control board a sense for the economics of the federally mandated service. The control board has taken similar looks at other parts of the agency in recent months as it considers ways to balance its budget.

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Lambert said the T could trim $16 million in Ride expenses by partnering with other transportation services, replicating a pilot program that recently began with taxi cabs. In that program, customers pay $2 and the T pays $13 for rides that cost up to $15, making it cheaper for both the T and the customer, according to Lambert. The program also allows passengers to book rides as needed, he said. The Ride cannot always provide service with less than 24 hours’ notice, and when it can, it costs extra.

The MBTA has held several discussions with the on-demand transportation company Uber about expanding the program, Lambert said. Matt George, the CEO of the Boston-based private bus service Bridj, also spoke at the meeting, suggesting he could be interested in a similar arrangement. Lambert said the T has informally talked with the company.

Activists and passengers at Monday’s meeting spoke favorably about these initiatives. However, they said outside services must be properly equipped to handle wheelchair transportation.

“I think it’s wonderful that we offer alternatives to The Ride. But my concern is that I’ve never been able to fit my wheelchair into a Boston cab,’’ said Rob Park, who works for the Boston Center for Independent Living.

The T could save another $11 million by providing deeper discounts on the bus and subway to people with disabilities, Lambert said. The figure also incorporates training more Ride passengers to use those services.

Other potential changes to The Ride were more divisive.

Lambert said the T could save $12 million by reducing the area The Ride serves to the minimum required by the federal government, cutting 210,000 trips per year.

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But advocate Don Summerfield said “hundreds of individuals who would buy food and medicine would suffer greatly’’ from such a change.

After the meeting, Lambert told reporters that communities excluded as a result could be served by nonprofits, local Councils on Aging, or another state agency like the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

The T could also pocket $8 million by increasing standard Ride prices to $4.20, the highest the agency can currently go under federal law, Lambert said.

Park said many Ride users would not be able to handle a price increase.

“We’re dealing with people who are on limited incomes and need The Ride to get around for social opportunities, for shopping, even for doctor’s appointments,’’ Park said. “So we need to keep it at a cost level that is fair for people. … It’s hard enough for them to buy their own personal care products, so we need to think about, how do we keep it low enough so those people can access The Ride as well?’’

Any fare increase for The Ride would come as part of a larger pricing decision across the entire MBTA, Lambert said. Officials are considering price hikes—which could be as high as 10 percent—for next year. Several members of the public at Monday’s meeting spoke against that plan, with some arguing the T has run too poorly since the last price increase in 2014 to justify a sharp fare hike.

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