Lawmakers pressured on planned T hikes

By Mounira Al Hmoud

BOSTON – Public transportation advocates have a busload of ideas, ranging from shifts in state transportation funding and increase in Registry fees and tolls, to avoid fare hikes and services cuts to the MBTA and regional transit authorities.

“The MBTA serves a million trips a day,” Elizabeth Weyant, an attorney with consumer group MassPIRG, told a Statehouse gathering held Tuesday to find another way to deal with MBTA deficits. “Failure to actually maintain our transportation system means train breakdowns, crowded roads, decline in servicing system.”

The MBTA has proposed fare increases as much as 43 percent along with cuts in weeknight commuter rail service after 10 p.m. Bus service throughout the region would also be reduced.

The hearing, held to come up with ways to limit the impact of the financial crisis on riders, included participation by Richard Domino, president and CEO of A Better City, a nonprofit organization for business and leadership, and Benjamin Forman, research director at MassINC, an independent think-thank. Several legislators joined in the discussion.

“That is the first time the MBTA and RTA Caucuses are coming together to find how to benefit all 351 cities and towns of Massachusetts,” said Rep. Sean Garballey, D-Arlington.

The panel members agreed to say a partnership should be developed between the Legislature, the governor, and the transit authorities to avoid further costs for riders.

Weyant said regional transportation authorities have cut services and raised fares in the past few years, affecting the riders, such as seniors and students, who are most dependent on public transportation.

She suggested a quick fix by shifting some state transportation funding to public transit.

“In the short term, to fix the $161 million budget shortfall the T is facing this year, we could call for contributions from other transportation agencies and ideally, some sort of funding from the Legislature.”

For the long term, Weyant suggested a combination of small and predictable fare hikes, electronic fare collections at commuter rail parking lots increases in the gas tax, Registry fees, and open road tolling.

She also said officials should consider expanding U-pass programs for university students, establishing a vehicle per miles travel fees, and land Big Dig debt relief.

Domino warned that the fare increases and service cuts would force more people to drive to work, adding 400,000 to 60,000 vehicle miles traveled in the Boston metro region.

“As Boston’s population doubles everyday, 55 percent of these trips are made on Mass Transit.” Domino said. “We need to look at the congestion implications.”

He said the Massachusetts’ economic growth is dependent on mass transit and called the proposed service cuts inconsistent with the projection of the state’s future economy.

Domino noted many people rely on public transportation to go to jobs at hotels and hospitals.

“If we take the life science sector, the medical and academic sectors, the growing south Boston Waterfront, and the growth in Kendall Square, all of these indicators show that we would actually need more service on mass transit to accommodate the future jobs,” he said.

Forman favored a local approach to the problem, suggesting that each community determines the kind of transportation services they need and then raise revenue accordingly. He called on Massachusetts to look at transportation models in North Carolina and Georgia.

“We are under-investing in our Regional Transportation Authority, we are not giving them the opportunity to build for the future,” says Forman. “We are not giving them an incentive to spend the money wisely.”

Dory Tobias, a Boston member of the Massachusetts Senior Action organization said she was very happy to finally hear solutions to the problem.

“I have gone to nine MBTA meetings and all they were saying is ‘we have to cut, we have to cut, we have to cut,’ she said. “I have four children and it means it will be an increase of 43 percent on my pass to go to work, 30 some percent on each of my children’s pass to go to school, I mean, do the math. I am worried about the future if the kids cannot go to school to get an education.”

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