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Starts & Stops

With T fare increase looming, lunch is on the boss

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Saul Bauman (left) talked with Jonathan R. Davis, the MBTA’s acting general manager, during a meeting with T customers.

Acting MBTA General Manager Jonathan R. Davis’s interim job hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park - a ride on the Mattapan High-Speed Line? - for the T’s normally behind-the-scenes chief financial officer.

The last interim general manager presided over the relatively quiet period in 2009-10 between Daniel A. Grabauskas and Richard A. Davey, after Beacon Hill had kicked just enough extra revenue over to the T to avoid a fare increase until well after the 2010 elections.

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Davis took the helm just in time to receive brickbats from the public as the face and voice of an agency proposing a stark fare increase and service cuts. Adding insult to injury, one of the buses eyed for the chopping block is the one Davis himself often rides in his commute from Medford, the 326.

And his monthly pizza luncheon with customers appeared to get off to a rough start Friday, when one participant sized him up as he extended a hand.

“Where’s Mr. Davey? He’s not here today?’’ the woman harrumphed, suggesting a bait and switch. She had reason to grouse, having been a passenger on the now-infamous four-hour commuter rail trip to Worcester last March 1.

Davis explained that Davey had been promoted to serve as state secretary of transportation, and that he is filling in during the replacement search.

“Congratulations on your promotion. Did they tell you about the $161 million [deficit] first?’’ joked Richard Danca, a freelance writer from Newton, knowing Davis was the man behind the calculations.

The crowd, settling in, was knowledgeable and mostly favorable. That might have been expected in what was the 10th in a series of Operations Control Center tours and manager luncheons the T started last year as a consolation prize for the many runners-up in its “General Manager for a Day’’ contest. Upcoming public hearings on the proposed fare increases and service reductions are likely to be much harsher.

Still, Davis urged public attendance. That won’t spare the coming pain - indeed, he said the T is not seeking a legislative bailout and even thanked the state for what help it provides - but will enable the T to make cuts more thoughtfully.

“Voice your support for having the transportation and transit system we need here in Massachusetts and need here in the Greater Boston area, and how vital it is,’’ he said, adding that the issues at stake affect not only regular riders but anyone with an interest in the economy, road congestion, the environment, and mobility for all.

Danca offered that he could not envision Boston without a robust transit system. “The T - it’s old, it’s stinky, and it’s noisy, but boy, it goes everywhere.’’

The former Washington resident asked why the T did not follow D.C.’s lead and ban riders from eating and drinking.

Simple, Davis answered: money.

Station concessions are too valuable, as part of the T’s ongoing effort to raise nonfare revenue, which has nearly doubled since 2000. Even then, it still covers only about 5 percent of expenses. Fares cover roughly a quarter of the T’s budget, about equal to the amount spent on debt payments.

Riders spoke up for favorite routes. Cynthia Bauman, an East Cambridge retiree who works part time for Cambridge Community Television, said service was poor already on the 69 bus, from Harvard to Lechmere, even while the less-crowded 68 from Harvard to Kendall strikes her as a luxury. “If you’re going to cut anything, I’d cut that,’’ she said.

Steve Mulder, a digital strategist from Somerville who spoke up about his “beloved 85’’ - the endangered Spring Hill-to-Kendall Square bus - asked about more alternative revenues: “Like more advertising. It’d be great if stations were sponsored.’’

Indeed, Davis said, the T has arranged with global branding firm IMG to study that possibility and report on it next month. Such deals elsewhere have been worth as much as $1 million a year for prominent stations.

That alone would hardly end the T’s budget struggles, caused by too much debt and too little income, as many observers have noted, including the 2009 external review of the MBTA commissioned by Governor Deval Patrick and led by former John Hancock chief executive David F. D’Alessandro.

The T compares favorably with peer systems on overhead and cost per passenger-trip, but it is the nation’s most indebted transit agency, partly because of debt passed on from Beacon Hill to fund politically popular expansion.

Still, Davis said, the T will solve this one on on its own, through cuts and fare increases - sounding like a man newly accustomed to conferring with spokesmen and enagaging with the Legislature and governor.

“I was asked to address one issue,’’ he said, expresing gratitude for the $900-plus million that the state contributes annually and $150 million from local municipalities to help the T operate. “We need to solve this problem with what we have.’’

Amid talk of the proposed fare increase and service cuts at the MBTA general manager’s monthly luncheon, Davis slipped in a little good news over the pizza, at least for those who park and ride at T garages.

In the coming months, the T will outfit most of those garages with readers to accept debit and credit cards as well as payment by Fast Lane turnpike-toll transponder, a tangible benefit of the 2009 merger of disparate transportation agencies to create MassDOT, and a service already available at the Route 128 garage.

Those garages will also be tied into the pay-by-phone system that already allows commuters to use their cellphones and credit cards to pay for parking at unstaffed “honor lots’’ on the commuter rail and at some surface rapid-transit stations.

T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said that credit, debit, and pay-by-phone will be accepted at these facilities within six months; Fast Lane is a year away.

That’s good news for people like reader Glenda Singer, who wrote recently to say that the ticket machines at the express entrance to the Alewife garage are frequently empty, requiring a dangerous back-up against incoming traffic to reach another machine.

I passed that on to Pesaturo. “Thank you to your reader (and our customer) for bringing this to our attention. It’s unacceptable,’’ he wrote, adding that garage contractor Central Parking would be notified immediately to be told that ticket stock should be checked nightly. The new equipment will also help staff manage the system by automatically alerting them to low ticket levels, he said.

Those interested in digging into the MBTA’s financial documents or perusing the Central Transportation Planning Staff’s rationale behind the proposed bus, ferry, and commuter rail cuts can find a trove of information at www.mbta.com, by clicking on the “Join the discussion’’ banner about the looming fare and service changes. You can also find a complete schedule for the 20 planned public meetings.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.
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