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MBTA gets a go-ahead to hike fares

Jan. 1 is target as Romney OK's change in law

Clearing the way for the first MBTA fare hike since 2000, Governor Mitt Romney freed up the transit agency yesterday to increase fares on trains and buses despite declining ridership.

To cope with tight fiscal times, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority managers have said they want to raise fares by between 25 percent and 36 percent beginning Jan. 1. Subway fares would increase from $1 to $1.25 and bus fares would move from 75 cents to $1, with the full slate of higher fares on subways, buses, commuter railways, and ferries expected to generate $25 million annually.

MBTA managers, however, may have been prevented from doing so by a state law barring the authority from increasing fares if ridership drops by more than 4 percent in a given year. On Monday, at the request of the MBTA, the House and Senate voted to delete the provision, and Romney endorsed that move yesterday.

The action in the Legislature came during informal sessions, when legislative leaders said only noncontroversial matters would be discussed. Those votes and Romney's signature on the bill outraged many MBTA riders and environmental activists; a group of T riders rallied against fare hikes yesterday morning in downtown Boston, in a march that culminated at the foot of the State House.

"We're appalled that [Romney] was completedly unmoved by 100 people in front of the State House calling for the veto, while he was signing it inside," said Jodi Sugarman-Brozan, program director for the group Alternatives for Community and Environment. "This is not over yet."

Toni Hicks, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said groups opposing the fare increases will consider their legal options, but it's not yet clear what grounds opponents will have to challenge the newly passed law.

In a message to the Legislature, Romney said he would order the MBTA and state transportation officials to conduct a top-to-bottom audit of T finances, and to work on ways to attract new riders before any fare increase goes into effect. Any fare increase must first be approved by the MBTA board, and transit officials said several public meetings would be held before any action is taken. Twelve such meetings are scheduled for next month alone.

"I fully expect the MBTA and the Executive Office of Transportation and Construction to complete a comprehensive financial review, to identify and eliminate inefficiencies, and take whatever actions are necessary to maintain and increase ridership," Romney wrote.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the governor's letter "clearly puts the responsibility on the MBTA to make its own case" for a fare increase.

"The governor is making it very clear that he wants the T to be responsive to the comments it receives during the public process," he said.

Romney wrote that he supported lifting the 4 percent rule because the MBTA lacks accurate ways to measure ridership. MBTA officials say fare revenue dropped by 3.2 percent in the fiscal year that ended June 30, and while they estimate that ridership dropped by a similar margin, they don't know that for sure.

Before the 4 percent rule was eliminated, several groups promised legal challenges if the MBTA pursued fare hikes. They believed that ridership may have dropped more than 4 percent.

The provision to free up the MBTA on fare matters was tucked into a budget bill that sailed through the Legislature on Monday, when only a handful of House and Senate lawmakers attended the scheduled sessions. Even some lawmakers who were at the sessions said they didn't know about the MBTA-related matter until a day after the votes.

According to several legislative aides, House and Senate leaders -- including House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini -- agreed to include the provision at the request of Michael H. Mulhern, the MBTA's general manager. Mulhern told the legislatative leaders of the potential legal problems regarding the 4 percent rule, promised to wrest savings through restructuring, and assured lawmakers of public participation before fares would be increased, according to the aides.

The House voted to eliminate the 4 percent rule during its budget debate this spring, but the Senate did not go along at the time.

Mulhern praised the move yesterday, saying he feared drawn-out legal wrangling over the T's ridership figures would force unnecessary service reductions.

"The discussion needs to be on the MBTA finance plan, its service plan, and how to pay for the service plan," he said. "A long, protracted discussion of how many people are on the system could potentially create a scenario where the MBTA ends up cutting service before getting an opportunity to raise its fares."

Several lawmakers who were not at the session said they would have objected to the bill if they had known it included the fare provision. During informal sessions, the objection of a single House or Senate member can stop any action from going forward, but that move would have halted the entire budget bill that included the MBTA measure.

"It was just a slap in the face," said state Representative Gloria L. Fox, Democrat of Roxbury, referring to the bill signed by Romney. "It just goes to show that the poor pay more. We intend to fight this every way that we can, legislatively and by community action."

Fares were last raised by the T in September 2000, when bus fares rose from 60 cents to 75 cents and the price of subway tokens increased from 85 cents to $1. Commuter rail tickets went up on a proportional basis.

Also yesterday, Romney moved to eliminate the state fee for marriage licenses. Previously, the state collected $4 per license, but the Legislature was looking to move that to $50. Romney signed the repeal of the existing fee but vetoed the proposed increase, meaning the state will not collect any money from marriage licenses. Cities and towns will continue to charge their own fees, however.

Globe correspondent Brendan McCarthy contributed to this report.

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