Riders on subways, buses, and commuter trains should brace for steep fare increases, but extensive cuts in MBTA service now appear less likely as leaders of the state’s transportation system near a deadline to erase a projected deficit.
Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey, who has faced customers in a series of charged public hearings, said in an interview that his agency is in a desperate search to find revenue from other sources so that drastic service reductions can be averted.
“From many customers that I’ve heard from, they would rather pay a little more than see service cut,’’ Davey said. During the hearings, aggrieved passengers have blasted cuts that would eliminate bus routes and weekend and late-night commuter rail service, losses that “in some instances are going to be devastating to their livelihood,’’ he said.
The appearance of thousands of riders at 20 hearings so far has caught the attention of Boston-area lawmakers, some of whom are calling on Beacon Hill to come to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s rescue by helping close an expected $161 million budget gap for the coming fiscal year.
While help from legislators is far from guaranteed, some lawmakers said a transit system that provides 1.3 million rides each weekday is too vital to the state’s economic health to saddle with unreasonable fare increases or Draconian service reductions.
“What’s been put on the table can’t be executed. We can’t do it to the residents, we can’t do it to the businesses, and furthermore, as we all know, it’s just a one-year fix,’’ said Representative Alice K. Wolf, a Cambridge Democrat helping to organize lawmakers in support of the T. “We’re still a long way from being able to say help is on the way, but that’s what we’re working on.’’
The MBTA is legally required to balance its budget, prompting the agency earlier this year to present two stark plans to close the gap for the fiscal year that starts in July.
One plan would raise the cost of fares and passes an average of 43 percent while eliminating a few dozen bus routes, halting E line and Mattapan trolleys on weekends, reducing commuter rail service, cutting all ferries, and shearing discounts for students, seniors, and the disabled. The other would cut even more bus routes, to allow for a less painful fare increase, at 35 percent.
The proposed increases - a one-way subway ride, now $1.70 with the reloadable CharlieCard and $2 with paper CharlieTicket, could rise to as much as $2.40 and $3, respectively - would be the largest by percentage since 1949, according to transit historian Bradley H. Clarke of the Boston Street Railway Association.
The MBTA will present a revised plan after the hearings end in March, with a board vote scheduled for early April. Fare increases would take effect July 1.
So far, the public hearings have drawn at least 4,300 people, with more than 1,200 rising to speak and an additional 4,600 commenting by e-mail. The message is clear, Davey said.
“Customers want more of us. In fact, customers are saying not only ‘don’t cut our service’ but ‘increase our service.’ There isn’t a company in America that wouldn’t love that problem,’’ he said. “We just can’t pay for it.’’
A broadly representative panel of more than two dozen transportation advocates, planners, and business leaders that advises Davey recommended on Friday that the MBTA avoid both of the options proposed. Instead, the advisory group said fares should rise no more than 25 percent, acknowledging the need for more money but wary of pricing people off the system.
Such a fare increase would generate about $80 million, while eliminating 10 or so low-ridership bus routes and instituting a smattering of other measures would yield $20 million more. The balance needed to cover the deficit would have to come from sources outside the MBTA, including the Legislature and government agencies.
“That’s as far as we think we can go without the downside - the pain - for customers and the economy really outweighing the benefits,’’ said Stephen J. Silveira, a Republican lobbyist and influential voice on transportation who helped develop the recommendations.
The group also proposed that the T implement regular, predictable fare increases in the future to avoid shocking the public and to try to meet and maintain a target of covering 45 percent of T operating expenses through fares, 50 percent when counting advertising and other T-generated sources. The rest of the T’s budget comes from sales tax revenue and contributions from cities and towns.
Davey agreed in the interview that predictable fare increases - 5 or 10 percent every other year - are advisable.
The MBTA is trying to pursue settlements in outstanding lawsuits, scour its real estate portfolio for surplus holdings, and find other ways to avoid leaning so heavily on customers, Davey said.
The Patrick administration is looking seriously at asking the Massachusetts Port Authority to subsidize Silver Line and ferry service to Logan International Airport, while exploring whether that agency could run commuter ferries as well, he said. And if the winter remains mild, $10 million or more budgeted for snow removal could be transferred to the MBTA.
Davey said he had no expectation of a cash infusion from Beacon Hill. But Silveira predicted legislative help, saying he doubted lawmakers would watch the T take the drastic steps threatened and say, “We’re going to live with the consequences.’’
The House speaker and Senate president have said they will refrain from weighing in until after the T concludes its hearings and the MBTA board casts its budget vote in April.
“We’re going to wait until the public hearings are over and hear what recommendations come from the MBTA board of directors. The board needs to come up with a plan and implement it,’’ Senate President Therese Murray said Friday, in an e-mailed statement.
The cochairmen of the Joint Transportation Committee said some members are discussing ways to help the T this year, but they do not expect broad support for added financial help, given that the state already covers more than half the T’s budget.
“If there is a time when the Legislature does act, it will not [just] be on the T but will have to be in order to address every mode of transportation which people throughout Massachusetts depend on,’’ said House chairman William M. Straus, a Democrat from Mattapoisett.
The Senate chairman, Thomas M. McGee of Lynn, said the T’s plight has resonated at the State House as well as among the public. Lawmakers see it as an opportunity to discuss the broader transportation-finance crisis, but that will not be resolved quickly, he warned.
Potential fixes could include an increase in the gas tax, raising road tolls, or a new payroll tax, which would aid not just the T but a badly indebted highway system and financially starved bus systems outside of Greater Boston. The state has been paying road-striping and highway mowing crews with borrowed funds.
“That’s what’s really crazy,’’ said Stephanie Pollack, associate director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy, who is part of the panel advising Davey. “Over the last two months, everyone has learned how awful the T’s finances are, but they’re better than the highway system.’’