Grocery shopping has gotten more complicated for Bob Hachey this summer. Blind since birth, he lives in a Waltham apartment more than 4 miles from the Costco where he likes to shop since he and his wife both lost their jobs.
He used to take The Ride, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s door-to-door service for the disabled, to the big-box store. But since The Ride’s one-way fare doubled July 1, going from $2 to $4, shopping at Costco — not reachable by bus — has become a more costly proposition for Hachey. And his other option, a taxi, would cost even more.
“It’s making us think creatively,” said Hachey, who is the immediate past president of the Bay State Council of the Blind. “It’s really going to cause hardships.”
The disabled and their advocates say that the MBTA’s fare increases, designed to help the agency balance its budget, hit hardest those who can least afford to pay: many of the disabled passengers of The Ride.
Overall, MBTA fares rose by an average of 23 percent. The Ride’s fares went up 100 percent, and another increase is planned for some outlying areas starting in October.
“The vast majority of people who use The Ride are not employed,” said Jonathan Gale, disability advocacy coalition coordinator at the Disability Law Center of Massachusetts. “They’re persons with a disability on a fixed income, or they’re persons with a disability who are seniors.”
Ridership has nearly doubled in the last five years. In January 2007, The Ride logged an average of 4,900 passenger trips each weekday, according to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. In May, the weekday number had increased to an average of 8,500.
The Ride serves 60 communities in Eastern Massachusetts, including Arlington, Bedford, Belmont, Brookline, Concord, Dover, Lexington, Lincoln, Medfield, Needham, Newton, Waltham, Watertown, Wellesley and Weston.
As ridership has increased, the MBTA found itself facing an overall budget deficit as high as $185 million for this fiscal year. Although the size of the shortfall was reduced, T officials said they could not balance the transit system’s budget without both service reductions and fare increases.
Fares on The Ride, even at $4 each way, cover just a fraction of the cost of providing the individualized service, officials said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the T and other transportation agencies to provide door-to-door services for disabled people who cannot use traditional mass transit, such as buses and subways.
But this kind of transportation is expensive. The MBTA contracts with a number of vendors to provide The Ride, and each trip costs more than $40, said Josh Robin, a spokesman for the T.
Hachey says his hardship is relatively minor. He knows another regular passenger, he said, who now cannot afford to go to the gym three times a week, as her doctor prescribed. Others struggle to get to doctor appointments.
In Braintree, Penny Shaw had to make a painful choice this month: whether to attend the funeral of a friend or a protest of the fare increase.
Shaw, who lives in a nursing home and moves around with a wheelchair, could only afford to take The Ride to one event. She decided to go to the funeral.
“I used to go out twice a week,” said Shaw, whose monthly disability income is $72.80. “Twice a week now would be almost 100 percent of my income. There’s no question, I can’t do twice a week for personal reasons anymore.”
“People call and they cry,” said Karen Schneiderman, a senior advocacy specialist at the Boston Center for Independent Living. “They say, ‘I would like to go and see my family, 20 minutes away,’ and they can’t because they can’t afford it. One woman said to me, ‘I’d like to come in and advocate for my own rights, but I can’t afford to spend that $8. I need that $8 if I have to go to the doctor.’ ”
In October, the MBTA plans another increase for areas farther from bus, train, and subway stops. The agency will create “premium zones” where the fare will increase an additional $1. The zones cover any territory more than three-quarters of a mile from a such a stop.
“So basically we have moved from probably the best paratransit system in the country to one that has all of the challenges and minimal level of service required by law,” said Rick Glassman, litigation director at the Disability Law Center of Massachusetts. “It’s a huge step downward for people with disabilities.”
The Bay State Council of the Blind had asked the MBTA to offer lower fares to low-income riders, while keeping the fare increase for those who could afford it. But the increase is the same for everyone.
Jennifer Harnish, a clinical psychologist at the Carroll Center for the Blind, works with many people who are newly blind. She worries that increasing fares means the blind will venture out of their homes less often.
“Access to transportation is one of the most critical aspects of regaining independence and self-confidence,” she said.
Harnish is blind, and uses The Ride when she doesn’t feel comfortable using trains, subways or buses — when the ground is covered with snow or ice, for instance, or she’s traveling to a new area.
Although she can afford the fare increase more than many riders, Harnish said, the increased price will make her reconsider taking her three children — who must all pay the fare — on The Ride.
But for others, the fare increase will hurt more, Harnish said.
“Someone might have chosen not to take a job that was not near their house if they had known what the cost would be,” she said. “If paratransit is your only option, it’s a pretty significant hit.”