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Fare hike would cut ridership on MBTA

Agency would still gain funds, report says

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 31, 2009

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Just one year after a record number of passengers flocked to the MBTA, the agency has come back to earth, as the price of gas has declined and the economy soured. And it can expect to lose another 5 percent of its riders if a proposed 19.5 percent fare hike is approved, according to a new state analysis.

Even that estimate could prove to be optimistic. The same state analysts predicted a 5 percent drop in riders before the last fare hike, in 2007, only to see an even larger dip: 9.5 percent fewer trips in the first year.

“Gas prices and the economy are going to dictate what that decline is and then when the rebound is,’’ said Daniel A. Grabauskas, general manager of the MBTA.

The analysis, conducted by a state government planning department that is independent of the T, also predicts that the fare hike, if approved, would result in a minimal impact on clean air, in part because analysts estimate that one-fourth of those who quit using the T will walk.

And they say the effect on poor and minority neighborhoods would not be disproportionate, based on an analysis that considers factors such as the modes of transportation available in different neighborhoods and their costs.

Despite losing passengers, the T can expect to generate $69 million more from the higher prices, according to the analysis.

The report from the Central Transportation Planning Staff acknowledges the predictions are inexact, and it includes a second method of analysis that estimates a smaller drop in passengers, 2.6 percent, as well as a different revenue gain. But those figures are considered less likely.

The report’s chief author, Elizabeth M. Moore, declined to comment.

Passenger counts at the T have dropped since last summer’s records, achieved when gas was zooming to more than $4 per gallon. A weak economy traditionally leads to a decline in public transit use, as fewer commuters have regular jobs. The T currently counts about 1.2 million passenger trips on an average weekday, with each segment of a rail or a bus ride considered a separate trip.

The MBTA is scheduled to hold a series of public hearings on the fare hike in August.

Grabauskas said the increase would probably take effect in January, although it could start in December.

The T is offering riders an opportunity to comment on possible cuts in service that would reduce the size of the hike. But Secretary of Transportation James A. Aloisi Jr., who chairs the T board, has said he believes that riders would prefer to pay more than lose bus routes or have less frequent subway and train service.

The fare debate comes as Grabauskas’s future is in doubt, following a public fight with Aloisi and a highly critical letter from three other members of the eight-member board that oversees the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Transit advocates, although watching the leadership fight, are immediately focused on the fare hike, with several organizations saying this week that they fear it would have direr impacts than predicted.

Taisha O’Bryant, chairwoman of the T Riders Union, said minority and low-income riders would certainly take a hit if fares go up.

“I’m one of them,’’ she said, pointing out that she would struggle to pay more for her monthly pass.

Environmental groups say they are also taking a closer look at the clean air estimates in the report, worrying that it assumes that too many people who leave public transit would walk instead of drive.

“It’s really going to change what it’s like to get around Boston and the Greater Boston area,’’ said Noah Chesnin of the Conservation Law Foundation.

The price of a monthly Link Pass with access to bus and subway would rise from $59 to $69. Monthly passes for senior citizens and students would also go up, from $20 to $24.

Those who use cash for a single bus or subway ride would be hit hardest, with fares rising by 50 cents to $2 and $2.50 respectively. Single rides with a Charlie Card would continue to cost less, going from $1.25 to $1.50 for a bus ride and from $1.70 to $2 for the subway.

Commuter rail fares, which are divided into numerous zones, would rise to as much as $280 per month, a $30 increase.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.