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Study for T sees impact of fare hike as minor

An analysis prepared for the MBTA shows that a proposed fare increase could drive away nearly 5 percent of all riders while boosting fare revenues by as much as 20 percent. But critics called the report's conclusions "self-serving" and said they were designed to support the authority's decision to raise prices.

The fare increase would prove only "slightly more onerous" for residents of poorer communities, the report found, and would have a minimal impact on air quality in Greater Boston by prompting some riders to seek other transportation.

Without the fare increase, the report's authors found, the T would have to end "Night Owl" bus service, cut 25 percent of night and weekend subway and bus service, and cut 50 percent of night and weekend commuter rail services. And some wait times on the Red, Orange, Blue, and Green lines would increase by about 33 percent, according to the report by the Central Transportation Planning Staff of the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials, who requested the analysis, said it shows that fare increases are the only realistic way to close a $25 million gap in its operating budget this year.

But critics said the report seems to tell state officials exactly what they wanted to hear.

"It's a deeply flawed and self-serving analysis," said Toni Hicks, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. "The desired outcome is to downplay negative ridership and negative impact, to make it easier for the board to justify a fare increase."

The report's authors found that a 6.8 percent ridership drop was possible with a fare increase -- a percentage that represents about 22.4 million riders annually. But they quickly noted that such a drastic downturn was unlikely, based on data from the last fare increase. Instead, they said the MBTA should expect the loss of between 12.5 million and 16 million riders, or between 3.8 and 4.9 percent of its total ridership. And that loss, they said, would be outweighed by an overall boost in fare revenue of between 15 and 20 percent.

Hicks criticized the report's authors for relying on data from the MBTA's last fare increase, in 2000, in finding that a worst-case scenario in lost ridership is unlikely. That's an imprecise comparison, she said, because the economy is in far worse shape than it was three years ago, and this round of proposed fare increases is steeper.

To cope with tight fiscal times, MBTA managers have said they want to increase fares by between 25 and 36 percent beginning Jan. 1. Subway fares would jump from $1 to $1.25, bus fares would move from 75 cents to $1, and fares on commuter railways and ferries would also rise by varying amounts.

The impact report will be formally released Tuesday, the day of the first of 12 public hearings scheduled to discuss the MBTA's proposed menu of fare increases. Officials of the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization did not return calls yesterday afternoon.

Dennis DiZoglio, the MBTA's assistant general manager for planning and real estate, said the report suggests that the general outline of fare increases proposed by the T is sound. The report found that the T could expect to derive about an additional $50 million over a 12-month period. To balance its books, the T needs to raise $25 million in the last six months of fiscal 2004, which ends June 30.

Still, DiZoglio said the report will offer the MBTA board a road map for tweaking the proposal. He cited the expected adverse impact in poorer communities and said those projections may persuade the board to lessen the amount of the bus fare increase, for example.

"Raising the fares seem to be a better way than cutting services," DiZoglio said. "The board will use this information, and the feedback from the public hearings, to fine-tune the proposals. There's a balancing act."

Last week, Governor Mitt Romney cleared the way for an MBTA fare increase by signing a measure that would allow the authority to bump up fares even if ridership drops precipitously. Under the previous law, the MBTA was prohibited from increasing fares if ridership dropped more than 4 percent on a year-to-year basis, and groups including the Conservation Law Foundation and the T Riders Union asserted that it had.

A Romney spokeswoman, Nicole St. Peter, said yesterday that the governor had not yet reviewed the impact report. Romney has ordered up a top-to-bottom review of MBTA finances to see if savings can be found that don't affect fares or services, but this report was commissioned before that request, and it does not explore other potential savings.

DiZoglio said the MBTA is open to finding other ways to cut costs, but cautioned that many easy steps -- including debt refinancing and renegotiating contracts with unions and contractors -- have already been taken. He added that service cuts would probably have an even greater impact on ridership, driving down revenues even further.

"That's the dilemma the board has when it looks at this," he said.

On the pollution front, the study found that the level of various chemicals in the region's air would rise by no more than .6 percent during weekday commutes -- a level the report's authors said was "well within the margin of error of the model."

But Hicks, of the Conservation Law Foundation, called for an independent review of the plan's environmental impact. She noted that the Metropolitan Planning Organization often works very closely with state transportation officials, and criticized the T for not opening up the report for public comment.

"This is not a neutral analysis," she said. "It highlights the need for independent review of environmental impacts."

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