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Record for T may be fleeting

Ridership at high, but fare hikes loom

The MBTA set a modern record for ridership in 2011, providing 389.8 million trips, a tally that will almost surely dip this year, as the T considers fare increases and service cuts.

The figures obtained by the Globe show that the T also set an annual record with 1.279 million average weekday one-way passenger trips. Each figure broke a high-water mark set in 2008, a year when high gas prices caused riders to flock to the T.

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Ridership grew nearly 4.5 percent over 2010, ending on a high note. In December, weekday trips soared 11.3 percent from a year before.

“It is great to see more and more people using public transportation, but it is also concerning that we have to talk about service reductions at a time when we’re seeing increased ridership,’’ said Jonathan R. Davis, acting general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Davis attributed the T’s popularity to a rise in commuters - the preliminary unemployment rate for December dipped to 6.8 percent, the lowest in three years - and gas prices remaining well above $3 a gallon. Ridership in December also benefited from improved weather over last year, among other factors, he said.

Davis has attended almost every hearing - nine down, at least 15 to go - that the T has scheduled about the fare and service proposals, receiving a clear message: “Not only are people not wanting to see any service reductions, because they rely on it to get where they’re going, but also they [want] to have more service.’’

Facing a $161 million deficit next year, the T has proposed raising prices on passes and fares 35 to 43 percent while cutting bus routes, eliminating ferries as well as late-night and weekend commuter rail, and substantially raising discounted fares for students, seniors, and the disabled. Planners predict the changes would drive away 9 to 17 percent of riders.

T leaders have said the plans will evolve through public input - possibly with higher prices at certain hours, or leaning more heavily on fare increases than service cuts - before adoption by the MBTA board in April, to take effect July 1.

Rising ridership has been a financial boon, but not nearly enough to keep up with soaring costs such as fuel, electricity, health insurance, and federally mandated door-to-door service for the disabled. The agency also faces principal and interest payments on more than $5 billion in debt. Much of that stems from politically popular expansion projects approved by Beacon Hill with no funding plan other than assigning it to the T.

Riders, environmental advocates, and business leaders have called for more state assistance to the T, but that appears unlikely, with pressure across the state budget and limited appetite for new taxes.

“There’s got to be a day of reckoning that happens before the next fiscal year,’’ said Richard A. Dimino, president and chief executive of A Better City, which represents hospitals, universities, financial firms, and other major employers on transportation and land-use planning. “The record ridership on the MBTA shows the importance of the T to Boston and the state’s economy.’’

Dimino said modest fare increases are understandable, but that the T proposal stings because it seeks so much, so abruptly. The T is seeking to bring fares in line with New York and Chicago, but that means a steep jump after more than five years without a fare hike; the proposals would boost a subway fare with CharlieCard from $1.70 to $2.25 or $2.40.

Adeola Animashaun, a student who has ridden the subway and bus for three years for work and school, said she has built the steady fare into her budget.

“Raising the fares is another problem; you have to work more hours,’’ said Animashaun, 27, who pays for school by working with a mental health organization.

Exiting the Red Line at JFK/UMass yesterday, Animashaun said she has witnessed the record ridership firsthand. “It’s very, very crowded during rush hours,’’ she said. “They should do something about that.’’

T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the 2011 figure was a record for the MBTA, established in 1964. A private predecessor, the Boston Elevated Railway Co., carried 433.1 million in 1946, when an influx of returning military personnel and lingering wartime tire and gas rationing yielded banner ridership, according to transit historian Bradley H. Clarke of the Boston Street Railway Association.

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