At forum, residents criticize MBTA cuts

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Correction appended.

Providence commuters voiced their concerns with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s proposed fare hikes and service cuts to its commuter rail system at a community meeting held last night at the Rhode Island Department of Administration Atrium. If enacted, the current changes would raise commuter rail fares by as much as 43 percent and eliminate stops after 10 p.m. on weekdays, as well as all weekend service. All together, the proposal would remove 23 stops on the MBTA’s Providence-Stoughton line, which provides transportation between Providence and Boston.

Representatives from the MBTA and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation attended the public hearing, which was prefaced by a brief overview of the proposals from Charles Plank, senior director of MBTA strategic initiatives.

“This deficit didn’t happen overnight,” Plank said of the MBTA’s $161 million deficit. The organization also currently has $5.2 billion in total debt. Plank partially attributed the MBTA’s financial struggle to the failure of its forward funding plan enacted in 2000, which draws the MBTA’s operating costs from the state sales tax. Underperformance in sales tax revenue has led to a loss of $75 million for the MBTA over the past ten years, Plank said.

Funding for the MBTA has also suffered from increased health care costs, steep increases in fuel and utility costs — which have doubled since fiscal year 2003 — as well as increased costs to sustain the MBTA’s mobility impaired services.

Plank said the MBTA’s small scale initiatives to reduce funding and record high number of trips last year are not sufficient to reduce its deficit to manageable levels. He said the MBTA still loses revenue for every trip on both bus and commuter rail systems. “Ridership does not equal profit,” he said.

Though most attendees who testified at the hearing were sympathetic to the MBTA’s financial struggles, many of the proposals were highly critiqued.

“They feel incredibly ill-conceived,” said Greg Nordin, a transit planner at the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority. Nordin said the proposed fare hikes would make a monthly commuter rail pass only $6 cheaper than Amtrak’s, and less than $2 cheaper than a single Amtrak ticket between Providence and Boston. 

“I would pay that for a ride that’s 30 minutes faster,” Nordin said. 

“I know you can’t just print the money,” said commuter Barry Schiller, who supported a reasonable fare increase to combat the MBTA’s deficit, “but this is excessive.”

Several speakers took the most offense with the proposals to eliminate late-night and weekend rail service. “Late-night services are the last thing you should be cutting,” said Steve Musen, director-at-large at the Rhode Island Association of Railroad Passengers. The main alternative, Amtrak train service from Providence to Boston, stops at 9:30 p.m. 

Some speakers criticized the MBTA for not providing sufficient notice for the hearing. “I didn’t hear about this until a couple of days ago,” said Darrel Kent, who said he uses the commuter rail frequently on weekends.

“I didn’t find out (about the hearing) until Saturday when I put on channel 10,” said commuter rail employee Tom Murray.

Plank said notice of this hearing and all scheduled public meetings has been available since the MBTA’s press release from Jan. 3. 

In addition to the proposed changes, the MBTA is also lobbying for increased federal funding for transportation. Despite these efforts, the federal government will likely reduce funding by as much as 30 percent, Plank said. “The news is probably not going to be good,” he said.



A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Amtrak train service from Providence to Boston stops at 9:30 p.m. In fact, it stops at 11:30 p.m. The article also reported that the Providence-Stoughton Line will lose 23 stops. In fact, 23 is the number of stops that will be put out of service in Rhode Island on weekends and late nights under the MBTA’s proposal. The Herald regrets the errors.

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