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Seniors’ persistence pays off with MBTA fare rollback

In August, Carolyn Villers (left) of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council helped Ann Stewart, 89, of Mattapan settle into a chair before they and three others were arrested.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

In August, Carolyn Villers (left) of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council helped Ann Stewart, 89, of Mattapan settle into a chair before they and three others were arrested.

It became something of a tradition at the start of every meeting of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s board of directors. A group of senior citizens would arrive to drive home the same message, again and again: They wanted a rollback of heightened fares on The Ride.

It was repetitive, relentless, and tedious — at least compared to the seniors’ other tactics, such as the day they set out to block traffic and were taken briefly to jail.

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But to the surprise of many, the meeting strategy worked, prompting an abrupt about-face last week as the transportation agency’s board voted to reduce the cost of a ticket on The Ride from $4 to $3, effective Jan. 6.

Members of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, who staged the protest effort, say their campaign was brilliant in its simplicity: “We just kept going back,” said 89-year-old Ann A. Stewart, a Mattapan resident and former president of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council. Over the course of 20 months, they did not miss a single meeting.

The phalanx of senior citizens, always clad in matching blue T-shirts, would troop into the meeting room, shuffling through the narrow aisles between rows of seats, wheelchairs causing traffic jams in the doorway.

One by one, they would approach the podium to deliver statements, tirades, and speeches that always said approximately the same thing: Because of the July 2012 fare increases that doubled the cost of a trip on The Ride to $4, they were suffering. Limited budgets caused them to cut back on trips to churches, grocery stores, and doctors’ offices.

At the front of the room, board members stared back — polite but largely silent, never giving an answer or a promise for a solution.

“I know that they just wanted us to get out of there half the time,” Stewart said. “It doesn’t bother us a bit, because we’re fighting for something that’s very important for us.”

The wall of silence cracked in the fall, when administrators agreed to meet with activists. Then just before Thanksgiving a phone call came. Board members had come up with a potential solution: Would the Massachusetts Senior Action Council agree to a compromise to lower the fares by $1?

“I think they said, ‘I guess I’ve got to appease these people some way, because they’re not going to quit,’ ” Stewart said.

John R. Jenkins, chairman of the state Department of Transportation board of directors, did not find the seniors’ repeated appearances annoying or tiresome; they were educational, he said. And they made a difference.

“Certainly their presence in telling their story and putting a human face on the impact of the fare increases, affected the board as well as the management of the MBTA,” Jenkins said. “They were helpful to us in understanding that this was a step that we needed to take.”

Jenkins said the decision also came down to numbers. The board had anticipated a 10 percent decrease in ridership as a result of the fare hikes; instead, the drop-off was nearly twice that.

Last week’s fare rollback vote comes at a significant cost to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which manages the operation of the door-to-door transit service for senior citizens and people with disabilities. T officials estimate that the decreased revenue from fares, coupled with the added costs of an expected surge in ridership, will leave the agency with $3 million less than planned in its budget.

Despite their victory, the activists say they have unfinished business. They want the T to institute a new fare structure dependent on income level for The Ride, so people below the poverty line would pay the same as the cost of a bus ticket.

“The T has committed to working with us on some type of means test, but they said they needed to put in more time and thought,” said Carolyn Villers, executive director of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council. “We’re going to make sure that’s not a forgotten promise.”

Throughout the struggle to cut back the fare increase, Villers said, the activists at times questioned whether their efforts were worth it. But they wanted board members to see people their cuts had affected.

The seniors’ decision to doggedly pursue those face-to-face confrontations meant the senior citizen agency often had to scare up legions of volunteer drivers and charter buses, but they were determined.

“There was a feeling that they wanted to hold the board accountable, that they wanted them to face the people that had made a decision to cause them harm,” Villers said. "They wanted the board to know it wasn’t just going to be business as usual.”

They followed the Department of Transportation board around the state, to Worcester and Springfield, even to a meeting at Barnstable Municipal Airport.

“When we walked into that room, you should have seen their faces. It was like, ‘Oh no, they followed us down here?’ ” Stewart said. “We sure did!”

The activists’ efforts gained little traction until this past April, when discussion began on Beacon Hill about a transportation finance package that had the potential to institute important changes in the state’s transit agencies.

The senior activists were angry at Richard A. Davey, the state’s secretary of transportation, and the fact that he called The Ride “a budget buster.”

They were also angry at delays in releasing a legally mandated survey about the effect of The Ride fare increases — a survey that would ultimately reveal that 22.4 percent of The Ride users reported cutting back on filling medical prescriptions as a result of the more expensive tickets, and 44 percent of all users of the service were spending less on groceries because of the increased fare.

That’s when they began to ratchet up efforts. They protested — once in front of the State House and later outside the state transportation building — and they planned to be arrested for blocking the street, preventing others from completing their commute in the same way they felt that their transportation was impeded.

They were packed up in prisoner transport vehicles and the backs of cruisers. Their shoelaces were removed, and they were booked in jail. (They were later released with no criminal charges or fine.)

“It was an experience for me, because I’ve never been arrested in my life,” Stewart said.

One of the seniors wondered what her church would think of her. Others were buoyed by thoughts of the actions of Rosa Parks.

“Even though we might be seniors,” Stewart said, “we’re kind of hardy people.”

Days later, after she had been bailed out, Stewart received a phone call from her grandson in Hawaii.

“I said, ‘You’ll be surprised to know that your grandma got arrested the other day,’ ” she recalled. “He was so tickled.”

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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