BOSTON Public transit riders in the Boston area could face fare increases of up to 33 percent or dramatic reductions in service unless the state provides additional funding for the financially strapped system, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials said Tuesday.
Facing a projected $140 million deficit in the fiscal year starting July 1, the MBTA is hoping Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature will agree on a long-term fix for the agency’s chronic budget shortfalls. But with the T required to present a balanced budget to its board of directors by April 15, officials outlined several options for closing the gap.
“We certainly hope for the best, but we need to plan for the worst,” Jonathan Davis, the MBTA’s chief financial officer, told the Department of Transportation’s finance and audit committee.
Under one scenario that would rely solely on fare increases, average fares would rise 33 percent, on top of last year’s 23 percent increase that helped close a $160 million deficit. The “all fare” approach would see bus fares go from $1.50 to $2, and subway fares from $2 to $2.60. Commuter rail increases would vary by region.
Another scenario would use a combination of fare increases and service cuts to close the deficit. Under this approach, fares may rise an average of 15 percent accompanied by steps that could include eliminating all weekend service, ending weekday service at 11 p.m., and cutting the 30 least-productive weekday bus routes.
Beverly Scott, the MBTA’s general manager, answered “absolutely not” when asked by reporters if the suggestions of fare increases and service cuts were a veiled threat intended to pressure lawmakers into acting on a budget fix.
“This is not about some kind of throw-down or putting someone on notice,” Scott said. “It is what it is. There are consequences of inaction, and we are just doing what we need to do on our end.”
Scott and other MBTA officials said they believed they could reduce the projected deficit to $115-$120 million through a series of cost savings and other measures, but that it would be impossible to totally wipe out the gap by cutting overhead alone.
“We are not fat with managers,” she said.
Patrick’s state budget proposal includes a call to permanently eliminate the MBTA’s operating deficits while also providing for “modest” service enhancements.
Patrick has proposed tax changes — including an increase in the state income tax from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent — that would generate $1.9 billion in new revenue for transportation and education initiatives.
The governor’s tax proposals have so far been met with a cool reception from legislative leaders. House Speaker Robert DeLeo is among those who have expressed reservations about raising the income tax at a time when many Massachusetts residents are still feeling the pinch of the economic downturn.
DeLeo and other lawmakers have said they are weighing alternative revenue measures.
“It takes two to tango,” said John Jenkins, a member of the MassDOT board of directors, adding the T has no choice but to proceed under the assumption it will receive little or no help from Beacon Hill.
“If the Legislature says no, or ‘We are only going to give you this much or that much,’ we have to have a plan to put in place quickly,” Jenkins said.
MBTA officials emphasized that no final decisions had been made on fare increases or service cuts and that public hearings would be held before any changes are implemented.
Advocates for transit riders said at Tuesday’s meeting they understood the MBTA’s dilemma but urged officials to consider the impact of future decisions on low-income, elderly and disabled passengers.
“We want to make sure that we do not unfairly target those who can least afford another fare increase,” said Diana Bell, a representative of Public Good-Public Transit, a statewide group that promotes public transportation.