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Disabled users of MBTA’s The Ride may soon face higher fares

Agency, facing deficits, says its costs are rising

The MBTA could save $8 million by raising fares on its The Ride service for the disabled by $1.20 per one-way trip, to $4.20.
The MBTA could save $8 million by raising fares on its The Ride service for the disabled by $1.20 per one-way trip, to $4.20.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File 2012/Globe Staff

The MBTA could save $8 million a year by increasing fares for its door-to-door service for disabled passengers to $4.20 a ride from $3, the authority said Monday — a prospect that is drawing sharp criticism from advocates who say it would severely limit travel for many of the service's users.

While officials did not propose any specific fare increases for The Ride, the service for disabled riders, several customers urged the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's fiscal control board to keep fares low.

Ann Stewart, a Ride user who works with the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, told board members at their weekly meeting that the MBTA should not repeat "the mistakes of its past." She reminded them that after The Ride's fares rose and eligibility requirements became stricter in 2012, usage dropped dramatically.

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"We remember 2012," said Stewart, who was accompanied by nearly a dozen other members of the senior council. "We remember our neighbors and friends who suffered because of harmful choices made by your predecessors."

In response to pressure from advocates for disabled and elderly passengers, the MBTA rolled back the fare from $4 to the current $3.

The discussion of Ride fares comes as the MBTA and its fiscal control board also consider increasing fares on buses and trains to address a deficit. The MBTA has not made any formal fare proposals, but advocates for more public transportation funding have come out strongly against large increases.

The debate also comes as many passengers say The Ride service is far from ideal. Even as the number of trips on The Ride has dropped, complaints have soared, more than doubling from 2010 to 2014.

Michael Lambert, deputy administrator for transit at the state Department of Transportation, said that stems partly from the MBTA's decision to expand the service area, from bad weather, and from drivers getting lost in new areas.

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Still, he said, the MBTA runs a better service than its peers, with an on-time rate of 93 percent. (Riders note the MBTA defines "on time" to include some trips in which drivers are 20 minutes late.)

Many consider The Ride, which began in 1977, a lifeline for disabled riders who have few transportation options. Those who cannot use buses and trains can instead use a van service to get to and from destinations near MBTA bus and train stops. In 2015, the service made 2.1 million trips, nearly 7,000 every weekday.

On Monday, officials said The Ride's service exceeds federal requirements but pointed out its high costs. On average, a one-way trip costs the MBTA $46.88, representing a far larger subsidy than for the MBTA's bus, subway, and commuter rail customers.

In 2015, the T spent about $97 million on The Ride, and it expects to spend $103 million in the 2016 fiscal year.

On Monday, Lambert told control board members the MBTA could potentially save $47 million in the 2017 fiscal year if they implemented cost controls for The Ride.

Allowing some taxi services and ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft to transport disabled passengers could save $16 million; providing training and incentives to disabled users to encourage them to use the T's trains and buses could save $11 million; charging $4.20, the highest one-way fare allowed by federal law, could save $8 million; and reducing The Ride's service area could save about $12 million.

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The MBTA is testing a program that allows riders to use debit cards for taxi service, with the MBTA subsidizing $13 for every $2 a rider pays. Lambert also said the T has spoken to Uber several times about a partnership.

Lambert said officials know how prices could affect riders, and that fare increases may be accompanied by discounts for low-income riders. Currently, the MBTA is testing a discount program for The Ride in which low-income riders get $1 off each ride.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack also raised the possibility of letting other public entities — such as regional transit authorities or the Department of Health and Human Services — take charge of the service. The Ride does not represent the MBTA's "core business," she said.

"It's not intended to denigrate the importance or need of that service," she said, "but we still have to ask the question: What service should we be providing, at what cost, and how should we provide it?"

Many advocates said they're worried. Several told the board they consider The Ride critical — and that higher prices could hurt them.

Sarah Kaplan, who works for the Boston Center for Independent Living, told the board how difficult it is to travel in her wheelchair. Some MBTA stations have broken elevators, and many taxis cannot accommodate her. That's why she needs The Ride, she said.

"If you make it too expensive, I wouldn't be able to take it on a daily basis," she said. "I hope you would be thoughtful about it as people are trying to make daily decisions about The Ride."

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John Ratliff, a member of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, said he doesn't want his friends to be "prisoners in their own homes" if they cannot afford the service.

"Do we want a society that when people get to be a certain age, we basically put them in solitary confinement?" he asked.


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.