Posted by Kathy McCabe February 17, 2012 10:04 AM
Kathy McCabe photosThey came with guide dogs, walkers, and backpacks. They were armed with petitions, spoke with passion, and shared common pleas
Don't cut bus, subway, or train service. Don't hike fares for a ride, or to park in an MBTA lot.
"This is a public service," said Lisa Huguley, 47, a disabled woman who lives in Malden public housing. "We're the public. We need this transportation. Don't take away the services we need."
Nearly 400 area residents, most regular riders of the MBTA, packed Malden Government Center last night to sound off about steep service cuts and fare hikes the public transit authority has proposed to close a $161 million deficit for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The MBTA is holding hearings around Greater Boston to gain public input before its board of directors votes on a plan to close the deficit, probably at its April meeting. The Malden crowd grew so large, it spilled out of the council chamber into a conference room.
On the table are across-the-board service reductions in local bus and commuter rail service, along with fare hikes ranging from 35 to 43 percent, depending on the level of cuts made. Last night, 135 speakers, including students and senior citizens, urged T officials to consider the impact the changes would have on their daily lives.
"Transportation is key to senior citizens health and well being," said Howard McGowan, 87, of Malden, an advocate for elder services. "Seniors without transportation are at increased risk of isolation."
Anabette d'Entremont, 17, a senior at Malden High School, called the proposed bus route cuts "One of the stupidest things I've ever heard of."
A lacrosse player, d'Entremont said she and her teammates take Bus 136 to Pine Banks Park for practice and games. "So many youth take this bus," she said, noting her father is disabled and can't drive her to school. "Malden High does not have the funds to get buses."
Malden High Principal Dana Brown urged officials not to cut bus service on Salem Street, where the school is located. Attendance is up, dropout rates are declining, and a loss of bus service would harm progress, he said.
"This would hurt us at Malden High School in many, many ways," Brown said. "Kids are getting to school, by way of the MBTA, which is a great service for us. We cannot afford to lose it in any way, shape, or form."
Annmarie Strazzullo of Malden took the The Ride, a door-to-door service the MBTA offers for people with disabilities, to the meeting. "I take The Ride all the time," said Strazzullo, 60, who is blind, and works part-time at a dictation service in Boston. "I cannot afford a 25 percent increase in my ride fare on my limited income."
Turnout for the Malden meeting pushed total public attendance over 4,000 for the 20 public meetings the T has held since last month. Upcoming local dates are Feb 27 at the Winthrop senior center; Feb. 28 in Somerville at the high school auditorium; March 5 in Haverhill at 90 Washington St.; and March 6 in Revere at Paul Revere School. All hearings will run from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m, according to to T's website, www.mbta.com
Despite raised voices, finger pointing and the occasional boos, public comment is essential for the T to make an informed decision, said Jonathan Davis, the T's general manager (right).
"I love the passion that people bring with them," Davis, a Medford resident, said in an interview. "Many of them are speaking in support of the need for a vibrant public transit system. We understand people depend on us. ... I am hoping, that by working together, we can mitigate some of the tough decisions we have to make."
The T has developed two scenaries to close its $161 million budget gap. One would rely more on service cuts, and less on fare hikes. The second would emphasize fare hikes over service cuts. In each scenario, commuter rail service would stop at 10 p.m. on weekdays, and would be eliminated on weekends. Davis said the final proposal could incorporate a bit of each scenario, along with ideas from the public meetings. "Everything is on the table," he said.
Local officials stressed the broad impact any change in service would have on private business and public services.
"You are taking away the lifeline that connects our residents to quality of life services, education, and opportunities," said Malden Mayor Gary Christenson, who presented officials with a petition signed by 500 city residents opposing the changes.
Melrose Mayor Robert Dolan, noting his city has three commuter rail stops and multiple bus routes, said cuts would harm "the prosperity of both our citizens and our businesses." Middle and high school students rely on the bus to take them to school, as do the elderly to get to doctors appointments, he said.
Stoneham Town Administrator David Ragucci said his community pays the MBTA $433,000 annually for bus service that would be eliminated under the proposal. "The people of Stoneham have no problem paying their fair share," Ragucci said. "We pay ... for one bus route that makes nine stops. We've been told that route is going to be cut. ... We ask for you to consider [the impact] on people who pay their fair share."
Kathy McCabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.