Lowell’s MBTA service spared

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — Service on the Lowell commuter-rail line has been spared under a budget proposal state transportation officials unveiled yesterday morning, but many commuters will be slapped with fare increases as high as 30 percent for a one-way ticket to Boston.

The cost for a single-ride ticket is jumping from $6.75 to $8.75 at the Lowell stop. A ticket at the North Billerica stop will climb to $8 from $6.25, and a ticket at the Wilmington stop will climb to $6.75 from $5.25.

The cost of a single-ride ticket on the Fitchburg line is also increasing. Those who board the train in Littleton will pay $9.25, up from $7.25, while those who board the train in Shirley and Ayer will pay $10, up from $7.75.

The cost of a monthly commuter-rail pass will climb to $275 from $223 in Lowell; $252 from $210 in North Billerica; $212 from $163 in Wilmington; $314 from $250 in Shirley and Ayer; and $291 from $235 in Littleton.

The proposal could be ratified as early as next week by the board of the state Department of Transportation.

Fares across the MBTA will increase by an average of 23 percent under the plan. Bus fares for passengers using CharlieCards would rise from the current $1.25 to $1.50, and subway fares would jump from $1.70 to $2.

Senior citizens and students would enjoy less generous discounts, paying half the base fare for buses and subways rather than the current one-third. The plan would also double the cost for most users of The Ride, a service for disabled passengers, from $2 to $4.

The plan is less drastic than proposed fair hikes and service cuts released earlier this year that would have eliminated commuter-rail service weekends and after 10 p.m. weekdays.

In addition to the fare hikes and service cuts, the proposal to close the MBTA’s projected $159 million deficit relies on $61 million in one-time revenues, including a $51 million transfer from a trust fund supporting environmentally friendly transportation projects that would require legislative approval.

The proposal comes on the heels of more than 30 public hearings conducted by transportation officials throughout the state over the past three months. During those hearings, residents said they preferred fare hikes to service cuts, according to Department of Transportation Secretary Richard Davey.

“We believe this proposal reflects what our customers told us which is, largely, please don’t cut our service,” Davey said yesterday.

Davey defended the proposed financial burden for commuter-rail customers, pointing out that the fares are still lower than in New York, Washington, and Chicago.

“It’s all about balancing what we think people can absorb but at the same time not driving them away,” Davey said.

In an afternoon press conference outside his office Gov. Deval Patrick endorsed the proposal.

“I accept it because of what it does to avoid drastic serve cuts for riders who depend on the T every day,” he said.

Patrick said he hopes that the Legislature will seek a long-term solution for the MBTA’s deficit next year.

“This solution is all about patches and plugs,” he said, noting that a gas tax he proposed in 2009 to address the state’s transportation woes was rejected by the Legislature. “They are going to have to be receptive to something.”

The MBTA estimates that the plan, if adopted, could reduce overall ridership on the system by about 5 percent. The last fare increase was Jan. 1, 2007, making Boston one of the only major U.S. systems that hasn’t boosted fares over the last five years.

Transportation officials have blamed much of the system’s financial woes on crushing debt, including debt from the massive Big Dig highway project in Boston. About 30 percent of the agency’s budget goes to repay $5.5 billion in borrowing racked up over many years — rising to more than $8 billion with interest — making it the nation’s most indebted transit system.

“We’re likely to be here one year from now talking about service cuts and fare increases,” Davey said.

State Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut, said she is “thrilled” that commuter-rail service was not cut, saying such a move would have been devastating for workers who depend on the service to get to Boston. Reducing service would also have hurt the local economy, said Garry.

“While commuters are going to be paying more, at least there is the opportunity to take it,” she said. “There are so many people who go to Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins games who would either have to leave early or drive into the city. And people who work (3-11 p.m.) would have problems taking the train home.”

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