LOWELL — A proposal by the MBTA to potentially end late-night and weekend commuter-rail service to slash a multi-billion dollar deficit met with strong opposition last night, with some calling the trains vital to the local economy's survival and quality of life.
"I'm partially blind and I can't drive and I count on the train," said Janice Kratky, a Mill City resident who takes the train into Boston regularly for concerts and other cultural outings. She was one of more than 100 residents who joined Greater Lowell political and business leaders at the public meeting at City Hall. "There's a lot of people like me. Listen to them, please, listen to them. You're going to hurt me and you're going to hurt a lot of people in Lowell."
MBTA officials, who addressed the standing-room only crowd, said nothing is set in stone yet, but they floated plans that would cut back on train and bus service and also raise average rider fares by up to 43 percent in Fiscal 2013.
"We have a $161 million operational deficit (this year alone) we need to solve. At this point, the MBTA is forced to act, so we have put forth two proposals," said Charles Planck, director of strategic Initiatives for the MBTA.
Under one proposal, 25 percent of bus routes would also be eliminated and there would be an average 43 percent fare hike. Under another proposal, there would be a 76 percent decrease in bus routes and an average 34 percent increase in fare costs, Planck said, noting that because the MBTA would cut routes with the least ridership, between 75 and 99 percent of riders would have no change in service.
Ed Hurd, a representative from Billerica state Rep. Marc Lombardo's office, decried any possible cuts to bus service between Bedford and Burlington and the Boston area, particularly on routes 350, 351 and 352, noting that cutbacks would also lead to clogged traffic on Interstate 93, with hundreds more cars on the roads.
LRTA Administrator Jim Scanlan said the proposed 34 to 43 percent fare increase and service cuts would be disastrous for the region.
"It's more than an inconvenience or a quality-of-life issue. It's one that affects people's livelihoods," Scanlan said, suggesting that the MBTA correct its financial structure in other ways.
Significant increases in fuel and energy costs and a doubling of health-care costs since Fiscal 03, coupled with a 400 percent increase in usership of THE RIDE service for disabled residents over the past decade and a $375 million shortfall in projected statewide sales tax revenues over 10 years leaves the MBTA with no choice, Planck said.
Several members of the audience joined Scanlan in imploring Planck to find someplace else to raise revenues and cut costs, with suggestions including an increase in the gas tax or a reduction in salaries.
"You have a difficult path ahead of you, but I urge you to please reconsider," said City Councilor Vesna Nuon.
Abby Goldenfarb, project manager for real-estate developer Trinity Financial, said that when MetLife agreed to invest $42 million in Lowell's Hamilton Canal District, a key reason was the mill redevelopment's close access to the commuter-rail service at the Gallagher Terminal. As a result, Goldenfarb said, Trinity Financial created more than 150 new construction jobs and 130 affordable apartments, many of which are reserved for artists.
"Our residents and investors are attached to places close to commuter-rail stations. It's integral," Goldenfarb said.
When City Manager Bernie Lynch and other city officials try to sell new businesses and residents on moving to the city's renovated mills, the proximity to the Gallagher Terminal and its regular commuter rail service is "the first thing we tell them about," Lynch said, noting that any service cutback would also hit those who could least afford it most.
"This is clearly an equity issue we have to be considerate about," Lynch said.