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Mass. Transportation Secretary Details Proposed MBTA Rate Hikes

BOSTON — The words “fare hike” make just about anyone who frequently uses public transportation shudder. The MBTA hasn’t raised fares since 2007, but is now proposing an increase of up to 43 percent to help deal with a projected $161 million budget gap and an aging fleet of trains.

Even so, the T acknowledges that, ultimately, fare hikes and service cuts alone won’t be enough to solve its budget problems, and it estimates that the system will lose between 9 and 17 percent of its riders as a result of increased fares and reduced service.

The state Department of Transportation released the first details of the proposed hike Tuesday, and Transportation Secretary Richard Davey spoke about those proposals with WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer.

Sacha Pfeiffer: The T has said that it will be holding more than 20 public meetings over the next several months about these proposed hikes, but given the budget reality at the T, is there really anything the public could say that would persuade the T not to raise fares?

Richard Davey: Well, certainly there are many things the public could say that could calibrate how high we’re raising fares or what services we’re cutting. I mean, we’ve definitely said, having spent some time running the T myself, we don’t have all the answers, and some of best ideas I got when I was general manager was from our customers. But, to your point, I think it would be almost inconceivable for there not be some kind of fare increase this year.

What has been proposed, as of July 1, is that, for CharlieCard holders, bus rides that are now $1.25 could go up to $1.75, and subway rides that are now $1.70 could go up to $2.40. Besides just costing more come July, how else might riding the T be different than it is now? For example, will there be longer waits for trains or buses?

Well, we’re trying to hold the line on service, particularly on subways, so we do not have any proposed cuts for subway service during rush hour, for example, or commuter rail. But we are looking at some underutilized service. We have some suburban bus carriers that are not well utilized. Under both scenarios, we are proposing to eliminate the ferry service that we run.

Totally eliminate it?

Totally eliminate it. It’s very underutilized right now and the cost per passenger is quite high and there are redundant services in place, in most instances. So, for example, if you take the ferry from Hingham, you could still use the Greenbush line, the commuter rail line. There are obviously opportunities to take to get to the airport on the Silver or Blue lines, for example, as opposed to the ferry.

What about commuter rail impact?

For commuter rail, we’re looking at complete elimination of weekend service and cutting back service at 10 p.m. Right now we run service in some instances till almost midnight.

That seems like it would have quite a bit of impact on people who live in outlying areas and rely on those to get into the city.

I completely understand. If you’re one of those customers who relies on the T or relies on commuter rail after 10 p.m. to get to Worcester or Fitchburg, this proposal is aimed at cutting that, and that’s going to be a significant burden.

The T has had quite an increase in ridership lately, attributed in part by the T to a slowly improving economy. Do you have any concern that if you do cut service, you could end up harming a fragile economic recovery?

I’m not sure we would harm an economic recovery because it’s not as if the T is driving that. I mean, the T, I think, is a beneficiary of an improving economy. I think, unfortunately some folks, some customers, will have different options that they’ll have to exercise, like driving or — to the extent that can — potentially altering work schedules.

When you talk about people having to drive, you’re basically talking about putting more people on the road. In so many ways, public transportation is what makes a city like Boston more livable. Do you worry that we make the city less livable when we cut back on service?

Sure, I do. I mean, it’s just the bottom line — there are going to be more cars on road and thus greenhouse gas emissions will increase. Certainly, in many ways, both scenarios pose some unwitting challenges for us and that’s one.

A lot of the T’s budget goes to paying off debt, and that amount rises with interest. Is it possible that because of that we will be back at the table talking about the same thing in just a year or two — the need for fares hikes and cuts in service?

I can almost guarantee it. I mean, the MBTA’s debt service this year alone is $452 million. That will be spent on interest or principal. That’s paying for things we already bought or built. To give you a sense of how much revenue we bring in, this year we’re expected to bring in $450 million to the fare box. So, basically, every dollar of what we take in from our customers goes to pay off the credit card.

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