Transit advocates slam MBTA’s fare hike plan

Yawu Miller | 8/12/2009, 9:44 a.m.
Bob Terrell (right), leader of the On the Move Coalition, speaks during a rally held Monday, Aug. 10,...

Bob Terrell (right), leader of the On the Move Coalition, speaks during a rally held Monday, Aug. 10, 2009, outside of the State House before a public workshop held by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to discuss a planned system-wide increase in mass transit fares. Fare raises, service cuts or both are expected. (Yawu Miller photo)

More than 150 transit activists gathered at the State House on Monday to protest plans forwarded by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) for a system-wide fare hike.

While MBTA officials say they will have to raise fares, cut services or do both to cover its budget deficit, transit activists called on the state Legislature to relieve the MBTA of its $5.2 billion debt, much of which was transferred to the agency from the state’s Big Dig highway reconstruction project.

“I feel that riders need not suffer more for the T’s debt,” said Taisha O’Bryant, chairwoman of the T Riders Union, a public transit advocacy group. “The T inherited the debt from the Big Dig and I feel the state Legislature needs to step up and face this problem.”

O’Bryant spoke at a rally staged before the first of 12 public workshops the MBTA had planned to hold to encourage public discussion of its fiscal challenges. The Boston Globe reported in Wednesday's edition that Gov. Deval Patrick canceled the remaining meetings on Tuesday, suspending such discussions until after the completion of an independent review of the MBTA's management. The review is expected to be completed in November.

During Monday's workshop, held in the State House’s Gardner Auditorium, legislators echoed the activists’ opposition to fare hikes and service cuts, and called for a comprehensive solution to the MBTA’s debt and fiscal crisis.

“We need to take a step back and take a creative approach,” said state Rep. Marie St. Fleur, who questioned the agency’s plan to spend $128 million on upgrades to the Mattapan bus route along Blue Hill Avenue.

“People want more and better service,” she said. “Not less service and higher costs.”

By the time of Monday’s hearing, the MBTA’s tone had changed, with Deputy Manager Jonathan Davis saying that the agency would not raise fares until the completion of a review of the agency’s finances by former John Hancock Chief Executive Officer David D’Alessandro.

While D’Alessandro’s review will likely look at inefficiencies in the agency, T Riders Union activists remain focused on the MBTA’s finances.

In 2000, the Legislature created a funding structure for the MBTA that included 20 percent of receipts from the state’s sales tax, plus assessments paid by cities and towns serviced by the transit system. Fares and other revenue generated by the MBTA account for just 48.7 percent of the agency’s revenue.

Since that funding structure was put in place, revenue from the sales tax has not kept pace with inflation. As the MBTA’s costs have continued to rise, the agency has implemented fare increases — four in the last nine years.