T riders face nearly 20 percent fare hike

Proposal follows $160m state bailout

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 9, 2009
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Commuters who depend on public transportation could soon pay nearly 20 percent more to ride buses, trains, and trolleys under a wide-ranging fare proposal unveiled yesterday, little more than a week after the state provided an infusion of $160 million to help the state’s transit agency.

The proposal includes a broad array of increases that would bring in an estimated $69 million a year and affect everyone who uses public transportation, from the suburban resident who takes commuter rail once a month to the city resident who depends on a monthly bus or subway pass for all local travel.

Advocates have warned that higher prices will drive people away from public transit when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is struggling to retain riders who turned to the T when gas prices spiked last summer.

Tourists and others who pay cash or use Charlie Tickets, rather than more cost effective CharlieCards or monthly passes, would be hit hardest, seeing the price of a subway ride jump from $2 to $2.50. An electronic CharlieCard subway fare would rise from $1.70 to $2. The LinkPass, valid for a month of unlimited travel on buses and subways, would jump from $59 to $69, and commuter rail passes would increase as much as $31 a month, depending on the zone.

“I’m disgusted, but not surprised,’’ said Tony Costello, a healthcare worker who was riding the Red Line yesterday. “They are totally mismanaged. . . . They’re pricing themselves out of business. It’s absolutely ridiculous.’’

The proposed fare increase will be the subject of 13 public workshops and hearings in August and would then have to be voted on by the MBTA board of directors. The proposal includes no specific date for a fare increase, and MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo could not specify a possible timeline.

Despite the additional money from the state, provided by an increase in the sales tax, transportation officials had warned in recent weeks that a fare increase was a near certainty, given the transit agency’s long-term debt problems. Yesterday’s release came in an afternoon e-mail and without comment from the T general manager, Daniel A. Grabauskas, or the chairman of its board, Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr.

Lee Matsueda, an organizer with the T Riders Union, said the fare proposal was especially galling to transit riders because car commuters from the suburbs have largely been held harmless by the Legislature. After lawmakers approved an increase in the sales tax, instead of the gas tax increase proposed by the governor, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority canceled a scheduled toll increase.

“They see the turnpike tollpayers getting out of a hike,’’ Matsueda said. “They’re seeing people who use cars who pay for gas getting out of an increase in the gas tax.’’

He and other transit advocates have held out some hope, however remote, that the T could use the recent legislative rescue to buy time and possibly lay the groundwork for future assistance from Beacon Hill. But in the current climate, with declining tax revenue and the Legislature fresh off a tax increase, transit officials do not seem to be banking on further help.

In addition to potential fare increases, the T released a series of potential service cuts in bus, train, and ferry service yesterday. But the agency said in the document detailing those cuts that it was not recommending imposing them.

“Service cutbacks remain under consideration and are outlined in this booklet,’’ the document said. “However, the projected loss in ridership resulting from these cuts would limit cost savings to just $55 million, far short of what is needed to close the budget gap for the next fiscal year.’’

Several other transit agencies across the country are under similar financial duress and have increased fares, cut service, or both.

Though transit officials had previously said they would like to raise fares by early fall, to reduce the size of the increase, the current schedule may prevent an increase until January, said Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board.

The MBTA said it hopes that a fare increase will protect commuters from another hike for at least two years. The agency has been depleting its reserves and redoubling its borrowing in the past year just to stay solvent. The T has some of the nation’s highest benefit costs for its workers. Those costs are set to be reduced under a transportation overhaul signed last month by Governor Deval Patrick.

But the T’s bigger problem, more than $8 billion in debt and interest, continues to weigh down the agency with escalating yearly payments. About 30 cents of every dollar in the T’s operating budget is used to pay debt. Without the $160 million infusion from the Legislature, the combination of fare hikes and service cuts would have been far more drastic.

The recent legislative rescue could provide enough money to meet the agency’s needs through next July.

But to avoid an even larger increase next year, when debt payments go up substantially and Patrick and others will be up for election, state officials made the decision to begin the process of raising fares in the next few months.

MBTA passenger counts increased by record amounts last year, as gas prices rose, but began to fall this year as the recession deepened and more people lost jobs. An increase in fares is likely to reduce ridership further.

Transit analysts have spent the last several months trying to measure how deep and lasting the loss in ridership would be, balancing the losses to determine how much money an increase in fares would raise for the MBTA.

Aloisi has said several times in recent weeks that he looks forward to the day when fare hikes on the MBTA, which affect some of the state’s poorest residents, are as politically unacceptable as higher tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike and an increase in the gas tax, which drew significant opposition when they were proposed by Patrick.

“I don’t think they’ve cut anything on the state level enough to put [more financial pressure] on the middle or lower class,’’ said Joel Furrow, a youth worker riding the T yesterday. “The people that use public transportation are the people trying to save money. It’s the upper class that can afford it.’’

Globe correspondent Maria Chutchian contributed to this report. Bierman can be reached at nbierman