By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 3, 2012….The MBTA over the next several months will consider a mix of sharp fare increases and service reductions that would eliminate some bus routes, cancel weekend commuter rail service and spike the cost of a subway ride to $2.40 in order close the agency’s latest budget gap, according to two proposals unveiled Tuesday by transportation officials.
Ferry service that shuttles commuters to and from Boston’s waterfront would also cease under both service revision plans offered by authority staff on Tuesday. Officials said they targeted public transit services with the fewest riders or where commuters have alternate options in an attempt to close a $161 million budget gap in fiscal 2013.
Describing “painful choices,” Transportation Secretary Richard Davey said after staff presented the possible scenarios to an MBTA subcommittee: “These aren’t statistics and money, these are people. They’re customers who rely heavily on the MBTA to get to home, school, hospitals and we are very aware of that.”
The potential fare increases and service reductions, which would hit customers who still regularly encounter service problems, were presented Tuesday to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Standing Committee on Audit & Finance. The full MassDOT board of directors will receive a briefing when they meet Wednesday.
Members of the subcommittee greeted the proposals with skepticism, urging transportation officials to go back to the drawing board and reexamine pricing and cost savings that could be wrung out of the system without cutting off riders from public transit access.
“We’ve gotten the low hanging fruit so now we have to take some pain. If the public’s going to take some pain with fare increases, we have to take some pain with efficiencies too,” said John Jenkins, the chairman of the MassDOT board. Jenkins said he believed the MBTA should at least double the amount of savings being pursued through efficiencies, now pegged at $24 million.
The T in recent months has promoted ridership gains and it’s unclear how the fare hikes and service cuts would affect that trend. The T’s fare hike policy requires that the agency “attempt to increase ridership, utilization and occupancy.”
In October, Lt. Gov. Tim Murray emphasized that the gas tax is one of many transportation financing options that should be on the table and said he expected a solution to transportation financing issues would be “a package.”Murray and Gov. Deval Patrick have emphasized the important role of transportation in Massachusetts for residents and the economy. A reform law approved in 2009 and the earmarking that year of sales tax revenues for transportation have helped addressed transportation system problems, but the administration has not developed a comprehensive financing plan to meet the system’s vast unmet financial needs.
Under one scenario, the MBTA would eliminate 26 percent of its bus route miles, impacting 2 percent of riders who might no longer have easy access to public transportation.
“I think we have to think long and hard before we abandon any of our customers, and that 2 percent, the reason they don’t have other options is because they tend to be our poorest and most vulnerable populations,” said board member Ferdinand Alvaro.
MBTA General Manager Jonathan Davis said T officials would continue to look for ways to save money, but said even additional reforms would not eliminate the need for a fare hike and service reductions.
“We’re not done with looking for cost savings and efficiencies. We will continue to do that, but we don’t expect it to materially alter the $160 million deficit,” Davis said.
MBTA officials said the proposed new fares, which have not been raised since 2007, are necessary to close a $185 million budget gap predicted for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, part of which will be solved with $24 million in “efficiencies and savings” such as moving to single operators on the Orange and Red lines.
“Our primary problem in the budget as it stands before you today is we simply have insufficient revenue to support these expenses,” said Mary Runkle, the MBTA’s budget chief.
The Legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick in 2009 raised the state sales tax by 25 percent and steered a chunk of the new revenue from that tax hike to the MBTA, but budget imbalances have persisted at the agency.
The MBTA plans to hold at least 20 public meetings starting Jan. 16 and extending through February and possibly into March. A final plan will presented to the board in March, followed by a board vote in April, under a timeline suggested by MBTA officials.
“I’d be surprised if either scenario was adopted in whole,” Davey said.
The cost of a single subway ride purchased with a CharlieCard could rise to $2.40 from $1.70 and bus fares could increase to $1.75 from $1.25 under one MBTA fare hike scenario being considered. Fares across all modes of transportation would climb 43 percent under the most drastic fare scenario unveiled by MBTA officials, who also presented a 35 percent fare hike scenario accompanied by deeper service cuts.
Under the 35 percent fare hike model, subway fares would climb to $2.25 and bus fares would rise to $1.75.
Board member Andrew Whittle described himself as “extremely worried” by the service cuts presented and suggested the biggest fare increases on the table would be a “destructive” scenario.
“I would love to see a more imaginative fare structure because to me that’s an obvious place you can achieve more with less,” Whittle said, suggesting charging different rates for off-peak hours and other alternatives.
Both plans would include sharp increases in the cost of the RIDE, a service for residents with disabilities ranging from a 50 percent hike to $3 per trip to a 125 percent hike to $4.50 per trip. Residents requesting the RIDE service outside of legally required territories would be charged premium fares of either $5 or $12, under the two scenarios.
Students and the elderly would also see their discounted fares increase to 50 percent from 33 percent of a full-cost ride, and parking rates would rise between 20 percent and 28 percent. Commuter rail service after 10 p.m. and on weekends would be eliminated, as would weekend Green Line E Line trolley service and the Red Line to Mattapan where passengers would be shifted to existing bus lines.
Jenkins said he thought the MBTA might be missing a chance to dramatically reform the RIDE, which carries the highest cost per customer in the transit system.
“I think we need to look way out the box for the RIDE to a total new model,” Jenkins said. “If we were going to start over again, how would we refashion this rather than looking at what we’ve got and ask how we can make it more efficient?”
Members of the board also urged the MBTA to consider pricing the ferries from the north and south shores to “break even,” or consider privatizing the service rather than eliminating it.
Charles Planck, the director of strategic initiatives for the MBTA, said breaking even could require doubling the cost of a ferry ride. For instance, the ferry from Hingham to Boston might cost $12, rather than $6.
“Most ferry passengers would have a less pleasant, but alternate way to get into Boston,” Planck said as justification for the recommendation to eliminate ferry service altogether.
Though Davey told the subcommittee he did not anticipate any legislative push to supply the cash-strapped transit agency with additional public funding from the state budget because of pressures on other safety-net services next year, Alvaro sent a message to the Legislature that it is time to again consider how the state finances the MBTA.
“Until the forward funding formula is fixed, we are going to continue to have financial problems,” Alvaro said, referring to a decade-old attempt to make the T financially stable and independent. “We keep putting a Band-aid on every hurt, but never really deal with the root cause of all this which is the funding formula is inadequate to meet the needs of our customers. The only ones who can fix that is the governor and the Legislature.”
Sen. John Keenan (D-Quincy) responded to the deficit reduction proposals by calling for a “better solution.”
“With 5 Red Line stations, 4 commuter rail stations and more than a dozen bus routes in my district, I am very concerned about the size of the proposed MBTA fare hikes and scope of the proposed service cuts,” Keenan said in a statement. “I will be reviewing the MBTA’s numbers in the coming days and weeks with hopes of finding a better solution that benefits the MBTA, its riders, and the communities it serves.”
Rafael Mares, staff attorney at Conservation Law Foundation, which is a member of the broader group Transportation for Massachusetts, said the fare hikes and service reductions “don’t work as a standalone solution” because they only solve a portion of the state’s unmet transportation finance needs.
“Even though these are pretty drastic measures, they do not actually get at the whole problem,” Mares said, calling for a broader approach to the needs of transportation agencies that have been united under one umbrella within the Patrick administration. “It doesn’t get at what kind of a public transportation system we want to have.”
Mares said questions remain about the quality of service that riders could be asked to pay substantially more to use. And he said the “adult conversation” that Patrick administration officials say is needed on the topic of transportation system financing hasn’t really begun.
While lamenting repair needs he estimated at more than $4 billion and an overall transportation finance gap estimated at as much as $19 billion four years ago, Mares said financing needs lack a “silver bullet” remedy and noted that the gas tax hasn’t increased since 1991. “You’d have to look at a menu of solutions,” he said.
Mares also said the T should more closely examine which of its service areas are most highly subsidized and adjust fare hikes by type of service to reflect those subsidies. He noted many low-income individuals use the T to get to and from work. “There’s people who rely on this to get to jobs,” he said. “This is not something you should do lightly.”