BOSTON — Claiming the July 2012 MBTA and paratransit fare hikes have left many choosing between travel and other necessities, advocates are pressing their case for limits on what certain groups pay.
“A lot of times, I can’t afford the T and this affects every aspect of my life,” said Luis Navarro, a 16-year-old Dorchester resident. “The T’s a lifeline for youth, and because of our age and income we rely on the T for everything, for education and safe travel at night.”
With another round of fare increases possible next summer, elder advocates called on the Legislature this week to adjust the current pricing structure.
“It is not affordable for those who need it now and those of us who might need it tomorrow,” Ann Stewart, the 89-year-old former president of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, told state transportation officials.
In 2012, faced with a roughly 10 percent budget deficit, the MBTA held public hearings around the state before raising fares an average of 23 percent and receiving additional state money to bail out the system.
The hikes also came along with increases on the MBTA’s commuter rail service, which serves Cape Ann with a line to and through Manchester, West Gloucester, Gloucester and Rockport stations. But the MBTA backed off threatened weekend and other rail service cutbacks after a number of Cape Ann and other residents — and groups such as the Cape Ann Chamber Service — decried the potential cuts as slicing into Cape Ann’s tourism lifeline, especially during summer months.
The July 2012 fare hikes, however, increased rates disproportionately for seniors, whose fares within the main MBTA system increased from a 40-cent bus ride and a 60-cent subway ride to a 75-cent bus ride and a $1 subway charge. Students saw a lesser increase, with the bus going from 60 cents to 85 cents and the subway rising from 75 cents to $1.
Adult travelers with a Charlie Card saw their bus fares go from $1.25 to $1.50 and subway rides from $1.70 to $2, while fares on The Ride increased from $2 to $4, with a new $5 premium charge for late-scheduled trips or visits to a “premium service area.”
“This was a targeted fare hike at a vulnerable population. No other class of fare was raised by the MBTA more substantially than The Ride,” Sen. Ken Donnelly told the Transportation Committee.
Transit activists pushed for passage of bills backed by Donnelly and Rep. Sean Garballey, both Arlington Democrats, that would limit fares for seniors and children age 5- to 19-years-old to no more than 35 percent of regular fares.
The legislation would also hold fare increases to the rate of growth in wages in the MBTA service area, and establish a tiered cost system, based on income, for The Ride, a door-to-door service available for people with disabilities, and other paratransit services at regional transit authorities, like the Cape Ann Transportation Authority.
Regional transit authorities, meanwhile, oppose the measure, which they said could result in service cuts or steeper fare hikes for other riders.
“The Regional Transit Authorities’ primary mission is to provide transit service for their riders and set fares that are reasonable but sufficient to sustain the service that is so vital. An underfunded system that requires more and more service cuts is no system at all,” said Jeannette Orsino, of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Transit Authorities, in prepared testimony opposing the bills. “How would the authorities access and verify information needed for the various classifications most specifically with regard to income?”
After several months of debate, this summer the Legislature passed a tax bill that allowed for fare increases of 5 percent every two years, and the MBTA has begun meeting with stakeholders before a planned release of at least two scenarios for fare increases next July — the start of the 2015 fiscal year.
Orsino also asked the committee whether the foregone fare revenue would be offset by others riders, or whether it would entail service cuts “just as the Legislature has provided funds for the RTAs to restore service and increase service.”
Donnelly said the cost of lessening fares for seniors could be a worthwhile expense.
“Under this bill, fares on The Ride and other paratransit service would be scaled back upon the income of the riders, so that those who could pay more do pay more and those that could not pay will not,” said Donnelly. He said, “This tiered fare structure could reduce revenue taken in by paratransit service, but with the statewide estimate of just over $2 million, isn’t that a small price to pay to help our senior and disabled residents participate in our society?”
Based on the current fares for adults, 35 percent of MBTA fares would equal 52 cents for the bus and 70 cents for the subway.
All of the MBTA’s transit service is subsidized.
About 60 percent of respondents to a state survey measuring the impact on the 2012 hikes on elders said they make fewer transit trips, while a majority of The Ride users whose income is less than $2,000 per month said they cut back on food, personal grooming and transit trips.
“There are savings to that impact,” AARP Massachusetts Director Michael Festa told the committee. “You know, 18 percent reduction in ridership means less cost associated with delivering the Ride for each one of those rides, so some money’s being saved somewhere, but how is it being saved?”