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As T sets plan, commuters along for ride

Most say higher fares better than service cuts

By Ellen Iskanian
Globe Correspondent / April 8, 2012
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Peter Bartkus used to look forward to warm summer mornings when he’d grab his bicycle and pedal across town to the MBTA commuter-rail station in Ashland to catch the train to his job in Boston.

The IT professional, who lives near Ashland’s border with Framingham, won’t be doing that this summer, however.

“I’m dropping a zone,’’ he said. “I’m not spending the extra money to ride my bike to Ashland. Instead I’ll come further east and save a few dollars.’’

By parking in a friend’s driveway near the Framingham station, or getting a ride to the downtown stop, Bartkus will be paying $252 for a monthly Zone 5 rail pass, rather than the $275 for a pass covering Ashland’s station, in Zone 6.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority last week approved rate increases that will push the cost of monthly commuter rail passes up between 20 and 30 percent for riders taking the train between area communities and Boston; the system starts with Zone 1 in Newton, and extends west to Fitchburg, in Zone 8.

The price increases, which will take effect July 1, are intended to close a projected budget deficit of almost $160 million for the coming fiscal year.

And while many area commuters said they are unhappy about the fare increases, they also said they are relieved that the T didn’t include more service cuts, as envisioned in its initial proposal.

“They tricked us into thinking the 20 percent increase is OK, because there was talk of much bigger increases and service cuts,’’ said Heidi Kuczmeic, a Franklin resident who gets dropped off at her local train station every morning for her commute into Boston.

“This isn’t good, but I thought it would be worse,’’ she said.

Many commuters grudgingly acknowledged that while the T service is expensive, there are no real alternatives.

“I wish the increase was more gradual, maybe in increments of 5 percent every couple of months. This is an awful lot to put into effect in one month,’’ said David Oteri, an accountant from Framingham. “But I’ve worked in Boston for 13 years. I’m a prisoner to the train.’’

Joshua Smith has done the math, and even with the extra $52 a month he’ll pay for his MBTA rail pass, it’s still cheaper for him to take the train than drive to his job in the computer department at a Boston hospital.

“It’s getting closer,’’ he said, “but when you add up gas, parking, tolls and driving in through all the traffic, it’s still a better deal.’’

The cost of Smith’s commute will jump an extra $624 annually under the new rate schedule, compared with the $2,676 he now pays for a year’s worth of train passes. Commuters who also pay the $4 daily parking fee at the station - not Smith, who lives within walking distance of the MBTA stop near Dean College - spend another roughly $1,000 a year, bringing their total cost for commuting from Zone 6 close to $3,700. And after July 1, it will top $4,300.

“There’s really no better option,’’ Smith said.

Acton resident Nathan Arora said he thought the MBTA could have taken a more holistic approach, raising fares less and cutting back on some late-night trains that are not heavily used.

But despite the fare increases, he said, the T “is still the cheapest option for me. Commuting by car just doesn’t make a lot of sense.’’ The transit agency “must strike a balance between fares and service,’’ he continued, and “should be able to generate its own revenue and eventually pay the debt.’’

Larry Donahue, an insurance broker from Needham who takes the train when he needs to be in Boston, also has decided that it is the best deal for him.

“Parking in Boston is $30 a day if you don’t have a pass,’’ he said. “The convenience of the T is good, it’s reliable, and the schedule is good. It’s expensive, but the cost is certainly not overriding. And I can sit and read the paper and drink my juice.’’

Richard Kesner, a Needham resident who teaches at Northeastern University, is on the same page. “It’s still cheaper and much more comfortable than driving,’’ he said. “I get a lot of my work done on the train.’’

Subhash Sehgal of Framingham doesn’t own a car, so he depends on the train to get to his job operating a small concessions cart at the MBTA’s Blue Line stop at Logan Airport.

He said he attended one of the 31 hearings the MBTA held this year about its plans for closing the budget deficit, and understands that prices had to go up.

“There’s been a hue and cry, but they’re not going to give the service away for free. Whatever you do, the costs are going up, so the price has to go up,’’ Sehgal said. “They could have cut our service.’’

Mark Difrancesco, who lives in Leominster, near the western edge of the T service, said he realizes that the debt is a problem, and feels the government should bail out the transit agency.

But he said he thought the round of public hearings the agency held on its plight were “all smoke and mirrors.’’

“They were just going to have a hike,’’ he said “There was no real change to their plan.’’

But Paul F. Matthews, executive director of the nonprofit 495/MetroWest Partnership, said he thinks the strong views expressed at public hearings in Framingham and elsewhere helped save service to the area.

Matthews, whose organization represents the interests of 33 communities along Interstate 495, from Route 1 in the south to Route 2 in Littleton, said his group is relieved that fare increases, rather than a drastic reduction in service, are being used to make up the budget gap.

“The T is in the midst of a financial crisis,’’ he said. “This is a very significant, legitimate crisis, and the fare hikes are a last resort.’’ Matthews said the message that was clearly voiced by area residents at the public hearings was that the T should not make them pay more for less.

Under the MBTA’s new budget, weekend service will be dropped cut on three routes - Kingston/Plymouth, Greenbush, and the Needham line, which runs through West Roxbury and Forest Hills to South Station. Weekend service on the Worcester line, which runs through Framingham and Wellesley en route to Yawkey Way, the Back Bay and South Station, is left intact.

“We see this as a very big victory for the people of our area,’’ Matthews said. “We are fortunate to have escaped termination of lines.’’

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From here to there
The MBTA’s board last week approved a range of fare increases, including for commuter rail. A sampling shows the change in cost for monthly passes in several communities:
Newtonville $135 to $173
Needham Center $151 to $189
Wellesley Square $163 to $212
Lincoln $186 to $228
Framingham $210 to $252
Franklin $223 to $275
Westborough $235 to $291
Ayer $250 to $314
SOURCE: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority