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MBTA cuts, hikes decried as major setback

By Jaclyn Reiss
Globe Correspondent / February 19, 2012
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MBTA officials felt no love in Framingham on Valentine’s Day as local residents, state legislators, and advocacy groups tore apart two proposals to raise fares and cut services to save the agency from a projected $161 million deficit next fiscal year.

Approximately 100 people filled Framingham Town Hall to rail against the proposals, both of which would 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 subway and trolley fares would rise from $1.70 to $2.40. Parking fees would remain $4 at commuter lots, but commuter train fares could rise up to 53 percent.

Under the second proposal, bus fares would rise from $1.25 to $1.50, while subway and trolley fares would rise from $1.70 to $2.25. Parking fees would still remain $4, with commuter train tickets rising up to 41 percent.

Charles Planck, senior director of MBTA strategic initiatives, said the T hoped to come up with a realistic proposal that combines features of both proposals after getting public input at 24 regional meetings.

Last week, the MBTA’s Advisory Board, which represents communities served by the public transit system, offered a third plan that would limit fare hikes to 25 percent and get other state agencies as well as major nonprofits, universities, and public attractions to shoulder some of the deficit.

Though T officials promised a review of the new proposal, the more severe measures are still on the table. It was those proposals that speakers addressed at the Framingham hearing.

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 public transit.

“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, chairwoman of the Framingham Disability Commission, said she was vehemently opposed to steep fare increases for The RIDE, a federally mandated and MBTA-provided service to shuttle disabled customers door-to-door, under one of the proposals.

Under that proposal, rides would increase from $2 to $12 for users west of Boston, since they would fall under a category labeling them “premium,’’ which includes those more than three-quarters of a mile from MBTA bus or rapid transit service.

Such premium trips, said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo, are not federally mandated. Under the second proposal, such riders would pay $5 per ride.

Dempsey said she takes The RIDE 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.

“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 van for music gigs.

“This is not affordable,’’ he said. “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 he would not be able to lug his 40-pound horn and its case on a bus or train due to his disability.

“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, the T official, said RIDE costs have tripled since 2003 due to increased operating costs and ridership.

State legislators also criticized the proposals, drawing attention to commuter cuts.

Representative Carolyn Dykema, a Holliston Democrat, said she has received numerous calls from her constituents, who use three different commuter rail stations west of Boston.

“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 fare increases and service cuts will result in more vehicular traffic on an already outdated highway system.

“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 Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, said in fiscal 2011, there was an average of 570 daily commuter rail riders after 10 p.m. on the Framingham-Worcester and Franklin lines, and 969 people commuting over the course of a weekend on the two commuter lines.

“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 fare increases would add traffic to the Massachusetts Turnpike every morning and would have a negative environmental impact.

The result would be “the exact opposite of the direction we’re trying to go,’’ Spilka said.

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

But local officials also criticized the T’s proposals. Joshua Ostroff, a Natick selectman, said his board voted unanimously Feb. 6 to oppose the service cuts and fare increases and sent a 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, which has businesses that have workers who commute from Boston.

“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 his agency, since the service earns much revenue from shuttling residents to commuter terminals.

“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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