WORCESTER — As MBTA officials mull potential fare increases timed for next summer, they may revisit last year’s dramatic price hikes for The Ride, the T’s door-to-door service for the elderly and people with disabilities.
MBTA general manager Beverly A. Scott said Wednesday at a Department of Transportation board of directors meeting that the agency may consider freezing fares for The Ride at current levels — or potentially even lowering them.
“Everything is on the table,” Scott said after the meeting.
Since a round of fare increases in 2012 doubled the one-way price of The Ride to $4, the T has drawn condemnation from riders and transportation advocates who argue that the increase — significantly more than the 23 percent average fare increase across the whole system — had a detrimental impact on the lives of the elderly and people with disabilities.
On Wednesday, transportation officials said they have heard the message loud and clear.
This time, they said, it will be the T’s priority to limit the impact that any further fare increases would have on users of The Ride. They agreed the hike had limited many people’s access to doctors, grocery stores, family, and beloved pastimes.
The likelihood of fare increases in July 2014 has been an all-but-foregone conclusion after state legislators passed a transportation finance package earlier this year. Although the package offered up millions to help the T close its immediate budget gap, it also mandated that the transit agency match the state funding increase by bolstering its own revenue base — money that comes primarily from advertising, real estate deals, and fare increases.
The new law states that the T is allowed to raise fares, at its most frequent, once every two years, meaning that the soonest another round of hikes could go into effect is July 2014.
Fares may only be raised by a maximum average of 5 percent across the whole system, but how the T devises that average is up for debate: Some types of fares may increase more dramatically than others, a fact that officials are considering as they also hear proposals on implementing a youth or university discount pass.
On Wednesday, transportation officials said they were wary of putting any added burden on The Ride users. After the meeting, Scott acknowledged that the ticket increase for the paratransit service led to a more dramatic dropoff in ridership than T officials had imagined.
In public testimony at the beginning of the meeting, Barbara Mann, president of the North Shore chapter of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, said transportation advocates had anticipated that senior citizens and disabled people would suffer significantly under the fare hikes. She cited the results of a report released last September by the Executive Office of Elder Affairs and the Massachusetts Office on Disability that surveyed more than 800 users of The Ride.
“Unfortunately, we were right. The hardship is severe, and the pain is real,” Mann said. “We have yet to hear a solution. It’s time to change that.”
As Mann spoke, more than a dozen audience members rose up in unison. Some held photos of senior citizens who had been impacted by the increases. Others carried signs citing the jarring statistics from the study that showed how people earning less than $2,000 per month had suffered since the hikes: 66.4 percent of Ride users reported limiting trips because of the increases and 22.4 percent said they cut back on filling medical prescriptions as a result of the more expensive tickets. Forty-four percent of all users of The Ride were spending less on groceries because of their need to finance the increased cost of transportation.
Janice Loux, a member of the Transportation Department board, said the T must ensure that any future fare increases refrain from further taxing The Ride users.
Transportation officials also discussed the possibility of implementing a tiered fare structure that would use a rider’s income level to determine the amount they would pay.
Also at Wednesday’s meeting, the Transportation Department’s board of directors voted to increase salaries for three top administrators by 3.5 percent.
Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey said the raises awarded to Rachel Kaprielian, head of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and Frank DePaola, administrator of the MassDOT Highway Division, were based on top-notch performance evaluations. Kaprielian’s salary will increase from $137,000 to $142,000, and DePaola’s salary will rise from $149,300 to $154,600.
Davey also sought a salary increase for Christopher Willenborg, administrator of the department’s Aeronautics Division, to put his salary on a par with similar positions at agencies around the country. Willenborg’s salary will increase from $114,000 to $118,000.