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.
Several public officials, including state Reps. Kevin Murphy, D-Lowell, and Colleen Garry, D-Dracut, decried the timing of the proposed cuts, when U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas has just helped secure the first piece of $60 million in federal funds for a proposed trolley system that would link the Gallagher terminal with the city's downtown business and cultural district, as well as the UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College campuses.
"This is absolutely the wrong time to be cutting these services," said Mayor Patrick Murphy, who noted he is a regular commuter-rail rider.
"My legislative director recently moved back to Lowell. She doesn't have a car, said state Sen. Eileen Donoghue, noting the woman would have no way of getting to her classes at Suffolk University, where she attends law school full time in the evenings, with the proposed cuts in service.
Bobby Tugbiyele, president of the Center City Committee, cited a May 2011 Brookings Institute report on the devastation reduced commuter rail service would wreak on the city.
"It clearly stated that policy-makers should be careful not to sever transportation lifelines between people and jobs," Tugbiyele said.
Officials from the MBTA, which raises funds from municipal levies, statewide sales tax receipts, fares, and advertising, real-estate and parking revenues, said yesterday that they have to do something to reduce the MBTA's $5.2 billion in debt, much of which it inherited from Big-Dig cost overruns, making it the highest debt burden of any U.S. transit agency. According to the MBTA's website, the majority of U.S. transit agencies have raised fares since the T's last hike in 2007 and many have also made service cuts. Also, according to the website, approximately 30 cents of every dollar in revenue goes to pay principal and interest costs on the MBTA's debt, so putting off cost cutting measures will hurt the economy even more in the long run.
"We expect we will be able to do some cost efficiencies, but we have the lowest collective-bargaining wage increases in modern history and the lowest headcount in modern history," said MBTA General Manager Jonathan Davis.
Under the two proposals, everyone from students and seniors to disabled people who rely on THE RIDE for transportation would have to absorb a significant increase in fares.
Kevin Fahy, a Lowell veteran, said he relies on the commuter rail on a regular basis to get him to and from the Veterans Administration hospital in Jamaica Plain, But Fahy also decried the effect the reduction in evening and weekend service would have on attendance at the many events, like the Lowell Summer Music Series, that have made the city a burgeoning cultural mecca that draws tourists to the region.
"People wouldn't be able to get back and forth from Lowell to Boston," he said.