Amid heightened tension with riders, Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey said Wednesday his department might be able to erase perhaps 10 percent from the $160 million MBTA deficit — money that would likely be used to alleviate a few of the proposed service cuts, not soften a looming fare increase.
But Davey maintained that “everything is still on the table’’ and that riders would likely be unhappy with the final recommendation made to the MBTA board in two weeks. That plan, to be approved by the board in April, would take effect July 1, barring unforeseen relief from Beacon Hill.
“What we’ve heard from customers — some customers, not all — is that they’d rather pay a little more than see their service cut, so that’s a place where [we] are focused,’’ Davey said, addressing reporters after an unusually charged T board meeting.
Inside the meeting, between airhorn honks, harmonica blasts, and call-and-response cries, riders described the pain that cuts and fare increases would inflict on their families and society’s most vulnerable. Others said the changes would be a grave mistake for the region’s economy, environment, and quality of life, and a blow to the record ridership the T has witnessed recently.
An additional 100 or so, turned away from the packed room for fire-code reasons, led cheers in the hall that could be heard through the closed doors — “We are! The 99 percent!’’ and “Banks get bailed out! We get sold out!’’ — until State Police eventually encouraged them to disperse for disturbing the office floors above the State Transportation Building’s atrium.
The board meeting, normally a staid affair, resembled many of the 31 public hearings that the T conducted throughout Greater Boston over the past two months, the last of them on Monday, on two proposed scenarios for cutting service and raising fares.
Even before Chairman John R. Jenkins could call on the dozens of speakers who had signed in, the group Occupy MBTA led a chant to demand no service cuts, no layoffs of MBTA employees, and no fare hikes.
“We demand! A public transportation system! That is accessible! To all of the 99 percent!’’ bellowed Noah McKenna, a 25-year-old laboratory technician from Jamaica Plain, as scores repeated at each pause. He urged the T to default on its loans before it turns to riders for more money. “The banks should be your first cut. Not the E Line! Not the commuter rail! Not the ferries!’’
Gail Weinstein, 69, a Randolph resident who serves as full-time caretaker for her disabled husband, Malvin, told the board through tears that a proposal to raise roundtrip fares on The Ride, the door-to-door service for people with disabilities, from $4 to as much as $24 for suburban passengers would leave them choosing among medical appointments.
“If you price him out of the ability to get to his doctors, you are legally murdering my husband!’’ said Weinstein, whose husband has physical, circulatory, and neurological disorders. “And I’m going to come after you with fangs if you do!’’
Some acknowledged that T leaders have little power to do anything other than raise fares or cut service without aid from lawmakers and the governor, such as new taxes dedicated to transportation or relief of the billions in debt assigned to the T to pay for politically popular expansion projects.
“The Legislature and the governor, they have been kicking this can down the road from the very beginning, since 2000,’’ said James Williamson, a longtime Cambridge activist, referring to the year lawmakers ended a blanket subsidy for the T and required it to balance its books. They gave the T dedicated tax revenue but also assigned it considerable debt.
Although the MBTA has reduced staffing and wrung more money from advertising, real estate, and other sources not felt by riders, it has been unable to keep up with escalated costs such as fuel, health insurance, and service for the disabled, plus mounting debt payments - despite refinancing to drive interest rates down and postpone some payments into the future.
The board is required by law to approve a balanced budget by April 15. On Wednesday, it passed a preliminary budget with a placeholder for the final package of service cuts and fare increases T planners will unveil later this month. Board member Janice Loux said she would be unhappy if asked to vote for painful bus cuts.
‘If you price him out of the ability to get to his doctors, you are legally murdering my husband!’Gail Weinstein On cuts to The Ride, a transportation service for the disabled
“I was put on this board and appointed by Governor [Deval] Patrick to vote my conscience,’’ said Loux, a veteran union organizer. “I cannot in good conscience support inner-city bus route cuts that will cut the legs out from under the workers who make this city run.’’
Davey said the department is using what tools it has.
On Wednesday, the board finalized a long-negotiated deal to lease North Station’s underground parking garage to Delaware North - owner of the Bruins and TD Garden - for 75 years and $72 million, with $50 million of it to be paid immediately. The deal is slightly more favorable to the state than anticipated, meaning an extra $5 million can be applied to the T’s budget.
If the weather remains warm, the $7 million lingering for highway snow removal will be applied as well, Davey said, while the state continues to examine the potential for Massport to subsidize Silver Line service to Logan Airport.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo said last week that the T “must leave no stone unturned’’ before turning again to the state. Davey said he did not know if more help might come this year.
“That’s not for me to say,’’ he said. “We have $160 million to close, and we have limited opportunities to do that.’’Eric Moskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.