Despite snow that fell most furiously during the rush hour commute, hundreds filled 119 School St. in Waltham last week to oppose proposed MBTA bus route and commuter rail service cuts and fare hikes that residents said would leave many without transportation to work, home, and the city.The MBTA proposed two scenarios in January that would eliminate lesser-used bus routes and limit commuter rail travel to weekdays before 10 p.m. and eliminate commuter service on weekends. The two proposals aim to help the MBTA close a looming $161 million deficit.
In Waltham, all MBTA bus routes except the 70 would be cut under both proposals. Eliminations would include the 52, 59, 505, 553, 554, 556, 558, 70A and 170 bus routes.
Legislators, residents, and city officials alike lined up to rail against the cuts Thursday night, saying that debt accrued from infrastructure improvements like the Big Dig has now been placed unfairly on riders’ shoulders.
Jonathan Davis, MBTA general manager, told residents that the agency was listening and would take their comments into consideration before making its decision on closing the deficit.
David L. Smith, a Waltham resident and retired state Department of Revenue employee, said that retirement and the rising price of gas has encouraged him to use public transportation frequently.
Smith said while he understood the MBTA’s financial situation, a 300 percent increase in bus fare was “ridiculous” to charge consumers.
“Run this like a business,” Smith said. “I know you need to make a profit and not lose $161 million, but you can’t come to us and say you’re going to charge more money and have less service to balance the budget.”
James H. Davis, a Waltham resident, said he lives on a fixed income and would not be able to afford fare increases.
“I use the bus everyday,” Davis said. “I haven’t had a raise in four years. Now they want to take service away and make us pay up?”
Davis said if the proposals pass, Massachusetts citizens will just continue to vehemently protest the changes in the coming year.
“Look at how many people showed up tonight. We’re hurting, and we’re doing the best we can,” Davis said as the audience erupted into applause.
Norman Neu, a Waltham resident who working in real estate, said cutting public transportation would not fare well for the town’s reputation.
Neu said if bus routes are cut, not only would residents not be able to travel to work and pay rent, but also that property values would decrease.
Monica Tibbits, president of the 128 Business Council, said service reductions would have a profound and negative impact on the economic competitiveness of the region.
“You’re placing a heavy burden on the commuters,” Tibbits said, adding that Waltham and nearby cities already suffer strain on congested roads and highways.
Robert Logan, a Waltham resident and first vice president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the state’s whole infrastructure system needed more funding, not just the MBTA, which showed a dismal transportation condition overall.
Logan said the organization has been pushing state legislators for additional Chapter 90 highway and road funds from the current $200 million per year to $300 million.
However, Logan said, it is estimated that cities and towns need at least $400 million each year just to keep up.
“This is just one piece. This issue is much bigger,” Logan said.
Bill Durkee Jr., program manager for the city’s Community Preservation Act, said the existence of privatized shuttle buses proved the need for more public transportation in Waltham.
“I support increasing bus routes within Waltham to the Rte. 128/95 corridor, to North Waltham including the Trapelo Road corridor, and to the locations of medical services and educational institutions,” he said.
Durkee also said the service cuts could end up slapping taxpayers with even more bills as they would pony up for disabled residents’ rising costs.
“I seriously doubt that increasing the fares will do anything but impose greater financial burdens on those who absolutely depend on the MBTA services, which means that the taxpayers who support the services to the less fortunate will pay for their MBTA costs,” he said.
Waltham City Council members all congregated as a group to confront the MBTA officials, including general manager Jonathan Davis.
“We don’t always agree on everything. But we come here tonight united, in support of all of you,” council president Robert J. Waddick said to the gathered residents.
Ward Three Councilor George A. Darcy said he and other North Waltham residents are dismayed that the 554 bus would disappear.
Darcy said they just received the 554 bus route, which travels from North Waltham to Newton Corner, only to find out it will shortly be cut again.
Darcy said that even with a current MBTA presence in Waltham, some neighborhoods, universities, and communities still have to employ privatized shuttles to transport residents and help them journey to the city.
“We need to consolidate, expand, and make better public transportation,” Darcy said.
State Rep. Thomas Stanley, a Waltham Democrat, said that he stood against the two proposals.
“We absolutely need public transportation. We don’t need less, we actually need more,” Stanley said. “My number one priority is to find a short-term solution, and then develop a long-term solution over the year.”
State Sen. Susan Fargo, a Lincoln Democrat, stood beside 9-year-old Cameron Erwin, who recently wrote a letter to the MBTA objecting the bus route eliminations.
Erwin wrote in his letter that the MBTA could save money by making transportation more eco-friendly, adding that public transportation does not pollute the air as much as vehicular traffic.
“Expanding the other transportation lines you run would be good, like moving some new lines towards the Berkshire hills,” Erwin wrote.
Fargo also said she and other legislators have been keeping busy on Beacon Hill, noting that the MBTA budget gap is due in part to debt from other projects.
“We did burden the MBTA with some debt, and dropped the debt of the Big Dig on top of MBTA, but we a need better long-term solution,” Fargo said. “We want to work with the MBTA, but you’re being played here.”
An MBTA spokesman said yesterday that Davis told people at the hearing that he he appreciated the fact that, despite the inclement weather, many people sacrificed time from their busy personal lives to attend the meeting and share their thoughts and suggestions.
Davis said that every comment will be considered while the MBTA continues to develop recommendations on how to close the deficit before April 15.
So far, 5,251 people have attended the first twenty-five regional public hearing sessions, said MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo.
Jaclyn Reiss for Boston.com
Follow us on Twitter: @yourtownwaltham, @jaclynreiss
Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org