James Nowlan, who uses a wheelchair and is on a fixed income, had to make some changes when MBTA fare increases took effect July 1. He depends on The Ride shuttle for disabled people, but he can’t afford to pay an extra $80 per month for his usual 40 rides.
To cut costs, Nowlan, 51, now volunteers just two days per week instead of three. He also uses the Salem Council on Aging shuttle instead of The Ride as much as possible.
For the Council on Aging service, he pays a $1 suggested donation for an in-town, one-way trip, versus $4 for the same trip on The Ride.
“I’m kind of cutting back a little bit because I have medical appointments coming up and will probably have to use The Ride,” said Nowlan, who has muscular dystrophy. “I enjoy volunteering, but I can’t do as much now. My rent is going up, and I can’t be spending more on my transportation.”
Around the region, disabled people are feeling an especially tight pinch from last month’s MBTA fare increases. While average T fares rose 23 percent, users of The Ride now pay 100 percent more, as one-way rates jumped from $2 to $4. And since many who use The Ride are unable to work, higher fees need to come out of their fixed incomes.
“I hear folks saying, ‘I guess I’ll need to just get food once a month and hope it fits in my freezer, which is very little,’ ” said Mary Margaret Moore, executive director of the Independent Living Center of the North Shore and Cape Ann. “I hear folks trying to figure it out.”
Residents north of Boston took 767,000 trips on The Ride, operated by Greater Lynn Senior Services, in fiscal 2011. They spent more than $1.2 million on fares, according to MBTA data.
Suburban use of The Ride is heaviest in communities near Boston, where the T operates other services and disabled residents have few alternatives. Up until now, ridership has been growing at 13 percent a year, according to the MBTA. The agency projects fare increases will reduce that growth to 1.4 percent as regular users take fewer trips to save money.
Some riders have few options but to cut back. Consider Patricia Carone, a 50-year-old Salem resident who has relied on The Ride since last year, when she lost a leg to diabetes. She has been seeing her doctor twice a month in a bid to monitor her condition closely and possibly save her other leg. But against her doctor’s recommendation, she now sees him only once a month. On $1,000-a-month disability payments, she said, she can’t afford to pay more for The Ride.
“I’m on a ton of medication, and she wants to keep an eye on things because it’s only been a year since my amputation,” Carone said. “Things just aren’t going well [with my treatment]. But I can’t afford to go more than once a month.”
Some people with disabilities are finding, as Nowlan has, that they can save by using local council on aging vans. These routinely charge less than half of The Ride’s fares and, in some communities such as Danvers, accommodate the disabled regardless of age. Other community councils on aging, such as Malden’s, provide rides only for seniors, which Malden defines as over age 50.
That approach has limitations, however. Council on aging vans generally don’t operate before 8 a.m., after 4 p.m., or on weekends. Also, they follow restricted routes, stopping only at designated locations such as medical facilities and shopping centers. The Ride operates during the same extended hours as the T, including nights and weekends, and provides door-to-door service.
As providers of low-cost transit, councils on aging were seeing demand increase even before T fares went up. The Danvers Council on Aging, for example, gave 17 percent more rides in the first half of 2012 compared with the first half of 2010, according to director Pamela Parkinson. Now some senior centers are bracing for a possible surge in calls from non-seniors with disabilities.
“Our fear is that demand on our council of aging transportation systems are going to go so high that we’re going to have to look at other eligibility criteria,” said Jayne Colino, president of the Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging and Senior Center Directors. “We are definitely thinking about that . . . so that if demand increases, it doesn’t bust the service for [seniors] who aren’t Ride eligible” because they’re not disabled.
Another fare increase for The Ride will affect residents north of Boston this fall. On Oct. 1, The Ride fares will rise to $5 each way for “premium” trips, such as those that go more than three-quarters of a mile beyond bus or subway routes. During weekday business hours, premium territory will include all of Middleton and Topsfield, as well as most of Wilmington, Lynnfield, Beverly, and West Peabody.
Since the first round of fare increases is still new, observers say, users of The Ride continue to weigh options. Both the Danvers and Salem councils on aging report an increase in inquiries from disabled persons who are wondering if local transportation policies will change now that The Ride has raised fares. Neither council is planning any changes to fares or eligibility.
For now, some with disabilities are reluctantly paying more. For example, seniors from Malden’s surrounding communities use The Ride to access day programs at the Malden Council on Aging.
“Older folks who come in to our center from Everett and Revere on The Ride have complained that it’s become more expensive,” said Donna Baden, dispatcher for the Malden Council on Aging’s shuttles, which serve only Malden residents. “But they’re still taking it because they don’t have any other options.”