Anger, frustration mark Dot meeting with MBTA officials

Netchie Patterson-Sampson is one of many people who use the No. 18 bus to get from Ashmont to the Dorchester House, the local grocery store, or Kit Clark Senior Services in Fields Corner.

But that route could be eliminated under at least one proposal the MBTA is considering as the transit agency struggles with an overwhelming debt load and a budget deficit of $161 million.

“If that’s cut, that’s going to be disastrous,” Patterson-Sampson, 55, said after speaking out against the proposed elimination at one of last week’s hearings on service cuts and fare hikes. “Because there’s nothing in between. The seniors can’t do that kind of walking.”

One scenario MBTA officials have outlined includes a 43 percent increase in fares, while another proposes a 35 percent fare hike coupled with steeper cuts in service. Both include shutting down the Mattapan high-speed trolley line on weekends.

At one of two Dorchester hearings, which were held in the Dorchester House, one unemployed woman flatly said she needed public transit to hunt for work.

“With this fare increase I’m not going to be able to get a job,” said Sandra, a self-described longtime resident of Dorchester who did not provide her last name.

Joel Abrams, president and CEO of the Dorchester House, testified that many patients at the community health center depend on public transit up and down Dorchester Avenue. He predicted that they could start to lose some of their patients if service is eliminated and fares increase, and suggested T officials look into a raise in the gas tax.

“Keep in mind this is all people have to access our services and we want to keep people coming,” Abrams said in testimony to T officials.

Several elected officials, including Mayor Thomas Menino and City Councillor At-Large Felix Arroyo, have said they support raising the gas tax to close the budget gap, noting that it hasn’t been hiked since 1991.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency, called either scenario involving cuts and fare hikes unacceptable.

“These proposed service cuts and fare increases will financially burden today’s commuters, worsen traffic congestion, damage the environment, and impede economic growth for years to come,” the agency said Tuesday in a widely distributed memo. “They will disproportionately harm households that depend on public transit as their major or sole means of transportation: the young, the old, people with disabilities, and families of modest means.”

Jonathan Davis, the interim general manager of the MBTA, cautioned that no final decisions on cuts and hikes have been made. The agency will make a final recommendation to the MBTA board in March, with a board vote expected in April.

His comments did little to assuage the crowd of frustrated MBTA customers who attended the Dorchester House hearing in the evening.

“I’m going to be homeless,” the woman who identified herself as Sandra shouted. “I’m not going to be able to get my medication. I am broke.”

Steve Bickerton Jr. noted the anger in the room, and questioned the MBTA’s decision to stop accepting alcohol advertisements.

“You won’t take their money, but you’ll take ours?” he asked.

State Rep. Carlos Henriquez, who frequently uses public transportation to get to the State House, said he hopes the MBTA will ease up on the rush toward hikes and cuts.

“I think they have time to slow this process down. Why rush something that’s not going to solve the problem,” he asked, noting that raising fares and cutting service will only close the budget deficit for the coming fiscal year.

Henriquez acknowledged the frustrations among MBTA customers about the tardiness of buses. Frequent complaints among several who testified in Dorchester included how late and dirty buses were.

“I don’t enjoy paying money for buses that don’t come on time,” said Daijah Pryor, an Edward Brooke Charter School student.

“It makes you wonder how that money’s being spent,” Henriquez said.

The MBTA hearing, held on a Thursday evening, also drew a protest from the T Riders Union and a number of self-identified socialists who rallied to oppose the cuts before the hearing got underway.