T fare-hike plan ripped; Patrick cancels hearings

A day after lawmakers and commuters blasted planned public transit fare increases as unfair and unaffordable, Gov. Deval Patrick suspended scheduled public hearings on the proposal – including ones in Grove Hall and at Roxbury Community College.

The move further pushes back the proposed hikes, which would boost fares by 20 percent: train rides to $2.50 from $2 and bus rides to $2 from $1.50. The administration, now in full control of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority after ousting General Manager Daniel Grabauskas, is seeking a “top to bottom” review of the agency and pledging no fare increases until it’s completed by November. The hikes, twelve in total, were expected to go into effect in January 2010.

And conflicting stories have emerged from Transportation Secretary Jim Aloisi and Grabauskas, a Republican holdover, over who supported the fare increases when, and whether they were necessary in the first place. Aloisi says Grabauskas pushed the hikes; Grabauskas says the opposite is true.

At a hearing on Monday at the State House, angry legislators and MBTA riders blasted the proposal and the Patrick administration on the issue. About 200 people packed Gardner Auditorium for three hours, with most voicing their displeasure with the increases.

State Rep. Marie St. Fleur, a Dorchester Democrat, said she voted for the sales tax increase earlier this year because she was told by the Executive Office of Transportation that the money would be enough to stave off the fare increase. The sales tax increase to 6.25 percent is expected to bring in $160 million for the debt-laden agency. Lawmakers said they were expecting federal stimulus funding to help as well.

“That is what I was led to believe and I want you guys to live up to it,” she told MBTA officials.

“The Executive Office of Transportation told us this is what was needed to close the gap,” she told the Reporter after testifying. “We shouldn’t be having this conversation today.”

Second Suffolk District state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said the fare increases would lead to additional congestion on the roads, hurt businesses, and slow the state’s economic recovery. “I don’t want to point fingers,” Chang-Diaz said. “There’s responsibility all round here.”

She joined St. Fleur and other lawmakers in saying the Executive Office of Transportation had assured them that money for the sales tax increase would be enough to close the MBTA’s budget deficit and avert toll hikes and service cuts.

Legislators also called for giving time for a massive overhaul of the state’s transportation infrastructure – including the MBTA and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority – that was signed into law in June to work and generate savings.

Thomas Tinlin, Mayor Thomas Menino’s transportation commissioner, also testified against the hikes, noting that the city had paid the MBTA $74 million for its services. “We’ve paid our fair share and our residents deserve more,” he said.

The accusations of miscommunication from lawmakers come after the Executive Office of Transportation stumbled in the roll-out of an express bus lane for Blue Hill Ave., dubbed Route 28X. The proposal caught area lawmakers by surprise and raised an outcry from community members that led transportation officials to slow down the process.

“The process has got to get better,” St. Fleur said.

Colin Durrant, a spokesman for the Transportation office, said officials had based the information it gave to lawmakers on “inconsistent and speculative information” provided by Grabauskas. B ecause of that, they are undertaking the “exhaustive” review, he said.
As for Route 28X, Durrant said the office has continued to reach out to the community in an “extensive and unprecedented” effort, holding hearings to address community concerns and having Aloisi ride the current bus route. “That’s underway,” Durrant said.

Asked about the fare increases, State Rep. Marty Walsh of Dorchester suggested capping them, and later reverting to a lower figure. “Sometimes, when something goes up, it never comes down,” he said.
“I don’t think any one person can fix” the MBTA, he said, adding that blame lies with the MBTA’s board of directors who never reached out to community members and lawmakers. Under the transportation overhaul, which goes into effect this fall, the board will be downsized and de-powered.

The Senate’s chairman of the Transportation Committee said the delay in fare hikes is appropriate.

“These are economically difficult times and we can put it off a year to allow the reforms to take place and then see where we are. I think that’s a good thing for those that ride and use the MBTA,” Sen. Steven Baddour (D-Methuen) told the State House News Service. “There’s nothing wrong with kicking it down the road. It took us 30 years to get in the mess we’re in, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight.”

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.