The MBTA would raise subway fares by up to 70 cents and dramatically cull bus routes, eliminate ferries, and end weekend commuter rail trains under a plan unveiled yesterday to help erase a projected $161 million deficit.
MBTA officials stressed that details could change after a string of public hearings through February. But after 5 1/2 years of staving off fare increases and maintaining or increasing services, they said changeappears inevitable when the next budget year begins July 1.
“These are difficult decisions for us; we don’t take it lightly,’’ said Jonathan R. Davis, the T’s chief financial officer and acting general manager, acknowledging the hundreds of thousands who rely on the MBTA daily.
Since it last raised fares Jan. 1, 2007, the T has avoided increases by cutting labor costs or refinancing debt and by generating cash selling surplus property and advertising space.
But options are running out, transportation officials said as they unveiled two packages of possible cuts and fare increases.
That the T has avoided fare hikes until now - even as most transit agencies have raised fares, cut service, or both - provided little balm for those smacked with the news yesterday.
Lance Wheeler, riding home to Dorchester from his job as a cook in Cambridge, sighed as he sank into his seat on the Red Line yesterday. “Right now is really not a good time for a fare increase: People are struggling,’’ said Wheeler, 53.
Already Wheeler opts for the $15 weekly pass instead of the $59 monthly subway-bus pass. Under both scenarios proposed by the T, the weekly pass would jump to $20, the monthly LinkPass to $78 or $80.
“I’m just making it now for bills and everything else,’’ he said.
A team at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has been working for months with the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization’s central transportation planning staff and a group of riders and activists to come up with the two plans.
One of the proposals would eliminate fewer bus routes than the other, but would raise the cost of passes and fares for subway, bus, and commuter rail by an average of 43 percent and would increase fees at park-and-ride lots by 28 percent. The second proposal would wipe out dozens of outlying bus routes while raising passes and fares an average of 35 percent and parking 20 percent.
Senior citizens could see the highest percentage increases, from roughly 33 percent of current fares to 50 percent or more.
The T - with steady ridership increases that put it on pace to provide nearly 400 million one-way trips this year - would probably drive away 9 to 13 percent of riders under the first scenario and 14 to 17 percent under the second, said Charles Planck, the MBTA’s senior director for strategic initiatives.
Planck said the team has eyed elimination of routes and modes carrying the fewest riders and needing the highest subsidies.
The two scenarios are based on different philosophies. One proposes large fare increases with fewer cuts in service. The other option relies on deeper cuts to balance the budget.
Both proposals would charge more for The RIDE, a federally mandated service that provides transportation for disabled residents. They would also each eliminate weekend service on the Mattapan high-speed line and Green Line E branch, routes served by a nearby bus line, while ending weekend and late-night commuter rail service and daily ferry service.
Alison Peterson of Hingham, a ferry commuter for 19 years, said she would consider the Greenbush train as an alternative. “I’d rather not do that,’’ she said. “I’d have to weigh my options. The ferry is the most convenient for where I live.’’
The T board, which must vote on a plan, had a lukewarm reaction. Board member Andrew Whittle an MIT engineering professor, said he thought the T should be more creative with variable prices, encouraging ridership at off-peak hours and charging more for longer trips.
Ferdinand Alvaro, a corporate lawyer on the board, said the T is hamstrung by the “forward funding’’ plan enacted by lawmakers 12 years ago.
The plan prevented the T from seeking additional money from the Legislature to make up for shortfalls each year. Instead, it gave the T a percentage of sales tax revenue. But that has fallen short of projections while Beacon Hill saddled the T with massive debt to pay for capital projects.
“Until the forward funding formula is fixed, we are going to have financial problems,’’ Alvaro said. “So it’s like we keep putting Band-Aids on every hurt, but we never really deal with the root cause. The only folks who can fix that are the governor and the Legislature.’’
Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey said pressure across the state budget means additional help is unlikely.
Representative William M. Straus, cochairman of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, said lawmakers have given the T an extra $160 million annually the last three years. He said an impact on riders is now inevitable.
“It may not be exactly what was presented today, but come July . . . fares are going to go up,’’ said Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat.