A citywide hearing on proposed MBTA fare hikes and service cuts swung from raucous to heartfelt and back Tuesday night, drawing both political theatrics and searching pleas from Somerville’s most vulnerable residents.
Among a crowd of more than 200, testimony from senior citizens, teenagers, and disabled residents seemed to resonate most with T general manager Jonathan Davis, who sat stoically throughout the high-volume proceedings.
“We don’t like this any more than the people in this room,’’ Davis said, responding after a string of impassioned testimonials.
To close a $161 million structural budget gap this year, the T has proposed alternate plans of either deep service cuts or steep fare hikes. Bus routes in Somerville would be the most immediately affected by service cuts. Fare hikes would impose at least a 40 percent increase on most riders, and more - up to 75 percent - for seniors and students.
Political officials have consistently lined up against the plan. A delegation of Somerville legislators, led by state Representative Denise Provost, spoke against the proposal.
But it was Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone who took the microphone first to offer his opposition.
“The problem goes beyond service cuts, which I oppose,’’ Curtatone said. “We should start to have a real conversation in this Commonwealth. If we want a 21st-century economy, we need a 21st-century transportation system.’’
Later, though, Davis was frequently interrupted by the political battle cries of the Occupy movement - incarnated in a rally of several dozen boisterous participants before the hearing at Somerville High School. That demonstration included supporters of Occupy Somerville, the Welcome Project, the Somerville Community Corporation, and other groups.
Rand Wilson, a Somerville resident and political organizer, was one of many who defied the hearing’s 90-second limit on individual comments, turning his back to a state microphone minder, refusing momentarily to relinquish the floor.
“Rise up! Rise up!’’ Wilson said, swinging a piece of paper like a hammer toward Davis. “Rise up if you’re against these cuts! Rise up!’’
Others called for taxation of the rich to pay for continued services on the MBTA, and for Davis and other T officials to “take a pay cut.’’
The rhetoric at times slipped into vague arguments not specifically directed at transportation problems. One man suggested that the T purposely default on its $5.2 billion debt to penalize the agency’s creditors for their role in the wider financial crisis.
But it was the personal comments, and not the political theater, that drew Davis’s closest attention.
“The MBTA is a lifeline, and what the MBTA wants to do would devastate the community,’’ said Ronald Leaks, a community organizer for Groundwork Somerville.
Some of the most touching commentary came from seniors who decried hikes proposed for The Ride, a service that provides transportation to doctors’ appointments and other destinations. Others said the MBTA’s $161 million deficit is a product of mishandled Big Dig debt.
“We seniors have already paid our dues,’’ said one woman. “It’s called cause and effect. The Big Dig caused it, and we should not have to be affected by it.’’