NEWTON, Mass. MBTA officials got an earful Tuesday night at hearings in Worcester and Newton on plans for fare increases and service cuts. These were the first of more than 20 scheduled public meetings on the T’s plans to tackle a $161 million budget deficit.
WBUR’s Curt Nickisch was at the hearing in Newton and joined Morning Edition Wednesday.
Deborah Becker: Curt, who showed up Tuesday night and what did they have to say?
Curt Nickisch: Well, about 300 in Newton, they packed a room at the Newton City Hall, and about 100 people packed a room at the Worcester Public Library and they were not fans — shock, I know — they were not fans of paying more for less service.
One elderly woman said she and her husband bought their Newton house based on how close the bus stop was, and now they were going to lose that bus route, they were afraid. There was a visually impaired woman there with her guide dog saying it was now going to cost hundreds of percent more for her to take the T’s paratransit service, The RIDE. There were even some seventh-graders who bemoaned they’d have to walk two miles to and from school with 20-pound backpacks.
The T has put two different plans on the table. One would mean a bigger fare increase — the average T rider would pay about 43 percent more. The other would boost fares an average of 35 percent but would cut more service: no commuter rail late at night or on weekends, fewer bus routes. And under both of these plans, ferry service would be eliminated altogether. So what would you say was the bigger complaint, paying more or having less?
Well, at least at the Newton hearing, many people said they’d rather pay more money to help the T balance its budget. And they’d rather not do with less frequent bus service or fewer routes. Here’s what one attendee, Rick Morin, told me:
The fare increase, they need to do. They should have done a while ago. It’s get-on-with-it time. But I’m not convinced that they need to do the service cuts and the fare increases all at the same time.
And of course, just from an economic argument it makes total sense. T ridership is up. Demand for the T is up so people expect to pay more. What doesn’t make sense to these riders is to cut supply at this time of higher demand, to eliminate bus routes, to eliminate evening or weekend commuter rail service. That was heard over and over.
Do you think that folks felt like T officials were listening to them?
Well, T folks were there, there was a stenographer taking everything down, but I definitely got the sense that everybody there was at least trying very hard to be listened to. I mean, a lot of people who showed up had already written out what they were going to say, they had extra copies to pass around. For some it was almost a chance to scold the T, even if the T wasn’t listening, as much as it was to complain about these fare hikes and service cuts proposals.
There was a big sense of mistrust, I think, there of the MBTA’s competence. You know one of the reasons that the T gave for cutting some bus routes in Newton, for instance, was the amount of fares paid on those routes and the number of people riding it. Well, one parent got up and she said her kids ride that bus to school, and she really took the T to task for its methodology. She said that when the bus picks up her kid and a few dozen schoolkids at once the driver often waves them on without making them pay. And now the fact that the driver doesn’t make those kids pay is being factored into why that bus line shouldn’t exist anymore. And that story from Sonja Loar really resonated with people in the auditorium:
I implore the MBTA to take a hard inward look on other cost-cutting measures, before severing this vital service to citizens who need it the most.
T officials said they’ve done everything they can, but now they have to turn to service cuts and fare hikes. And a fair number of people just didn’t believe that. And we’ll see if we hear more of that from the next 20 hearings, from Hingham where the ferry service would be cut, from Jamaica Plain, which would lose, under one scenario, Green “E” line service on weekends, and from communities all around Boston.