Several thousand commuters were delayed yesterday as frigid weather thwarted subway cars and commuter rail trains just one day after the MBTA announced a potentially steep fare increase and dramatic service cuts that officials say are needed to close a vast budget gap.
T leaders said the delays amounted to no more than scattered problems compared with what riders experienced last winter, when one in every four commuter rail trains was late for the months of January and February, and delays plagued the subway. But that proved little balm for the half-a-million MBTA commuters chafing over news of the fare increase, likely to hit July 1.
Even while expressing sorrow at the delays, MBTA management said the problems shined a light on the aging equipment and financial straits that result partly from debt saddled on the T by Beacon Hill.
“I want to apologize to our passengers for the delays that we experienced today on the system; however, we’re dealing with equipment that is well past its prime,’’ Jonathan R. Davis, chief financial officer and acting general manager, said in an interview after yesterday’s MBTA board meeting. “We have a need to replace these, but currently we don’t have the financial resources.’’
Red Line rider Loraine Dunn of Braintree yesterday said she suffered one of her worst commutes ever in 40 years of riding the T to work as a legal secretary. Normally, she leaves at 7:10 a.m. and arrives at Park Street before 7:45, affording her time to attend Mass before going to the office. Yesterday, she abandoned not one but two overcrowded trains that broke down or were delayed because of other breakdowns, before finally arriving on the third after nearly 90 minutes.
“It was a nightmare,’’ said Dunn, who was also smarting over the proposed fare increase. “The state has never gotten serious about truly funding the T, for all their talk.’’
Leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Tranportation Authority have been unusually frank this week in pinning the need for a fare increase and service cuts on the partial failure of the “forward funding’’ plan imposed by Beacon Hill in 2000. That plan made the T responsible for its books after years of asking lawmakers to cover its operating losses. In exchange, the T was given one of every five cents from the state’s sales tax.
That succeeded in bringing financial discipline to the T, which responded by cutting costs and finding ways to raise money to supplement fares.
But the sales tax has consistently lagged projections, while the billions in debt the Legislature passed on to the T - much of it for politically popular expansion that the MBTA could not afford to operate, much less construct - has vacuumed up fare dollars. And costs such as diesel fuel, electricity, and employee health insurance have soared.
Now facing a $161 million deficit for the coming fiscal year, T leaders unveiled proposals Tuesday to hike passes and single-trip fares by an average of 35 to 43 percent - the first increase since Jan. 1, 2007 - while potentially eliminating dozens of outlying bus routes, scrapping ferry service and weekend and late-night commuter rail, and substantially raising discounted fares for students, seniors, and the disabled.
Responding to State House rumblings that those proposals amounted to scare tactics designed to get a legislative bailout, Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey said the plans are genuine and desperate.
“This is real,’’ said Davey, who has no expectations of additional help from the governor or lawmakers.
After Governor Deval Patrick failed to convince the Legislature in 2009 to approve the first transportation-related gas tax increase in two decades, lawmakers and Patrick eventually agreed to raise the sales tax and direct an extra $160 million annually to the T, enough to delay a fare increase until well after the 2010 elections.
“The governor’s not happy either,’’ Davey said. “He knows, as we talked yesterday, these aren’t numbers, this isn’t money, these are people, customers who rely on the MBTA.’’
Members of the board overseeing the T and Department of Transportation, who hold final approval over cuts or fare increases, stressed yesterday that they will rely heavily on public comment at 20 meetings to be held across the region, starting in Newton and Worcester Jan. 17 and ending in Waltham March 1.
Meanwhile, on the winter’s coldest day so far, the morning Red Line commute was severely hampered by seven trains that suffered air-compression and hydraulic failures that were probably weather-related, T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said. Most were cars built in the late 1960s or late 1980s, near or beyond their intended 25-year lifespan.
After those were hauled off for repairs, a late-morning track fracture near Broadway, possibly weather-related, caused trains to be escorted past the problem area at 3 miles an hour. But other transit and bus lines performed well, Pesaturo said.
On commuter rail, which the T outsources, 12.5 percent of trains arrived five or more minutes late yesterday morning, said Scott Farmelant, spokesman for contractor Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. That came after a December in which the contractor recorded its fewest delays in 2 1/2 years.
Cooperation between the T and the rail contractor, including construction of a workshop to speed repairs, allowed for more substitute equipment waiting in the wings; that helped when the 6:55 a.m. Fitchburg inbound train failed to move, limiting delays on that and subsequent runs to roughly 10 minutes.
But riders on the Providence/Stoughton Line were less lucky when an early morning outbound train failed at Canton Junction, delaying five inbound and 10 outbound trains up to 39 minutes, Farmelant said.
Those affected found little solace in on-time performance elsewhere.
“This is, like, no snow!’’ said Kate Cone, 38, whose normal 40-minute Fitchburg Line ride from North Leominster took an hour, marked by uncertain pauses. “What will happen when it’s snowing?’’