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MBTA fee hike is still in play; Area riders to pay $8.25 each way.

Byline: John J. Monahan

BOSTON - The MBTA seems to be getting its signals crossed, and it could cost commuters in the form of higher fares - including those who rely on the Boston-Worcester commuter rail line.

Last Thursday, the day the MBTA board fired general manager Daniel A. Grabauskas, MBTA Chairman and State Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr. said he would put a proposed 20 percent fare increase on hold until a top-to-bottom "expert" review of MBTA finances is completed in November.

Yesterday, however, the transit agency moved forward with the first of a series of public hearings needed to implement the proposed fare increases, which would include the second major fare hike on the Boston-Worcester commuter line since 2007.

The increase is being sought even though the Legislature and the governor dedicated $160 million of the take from the state sales tax increase effective Aug. 1 to cover the agency's stated deficit for the current fiscal year. Legislators at the time said the sales tax funds were needed to avoid a new round of fare hikes or deep service cuts at the MBTA.

But the sales tax went through and the fare hike is also proceeding, with a highly charged and somewhat confusing political backdrop.

Mr. Grabauskas said yesterday he was fired at the behest of the Patrick administration because he opposed the fare hikes.

The former MBTA general manager said he had been arguing against the need for a fare hike with state transportation officials before leaving, and it was Mr. Aloisi who was pushing for the fare increases. Mr. Grabauskas said it is clear to him no fare hike is needed at this time.

One group of Boston area legislators yesterday called on the public to attend the hearings and voice objections to the fare increases, which they said would hurt economic recovery efforts and even property values at a time of rising unemployment.

The MBTA proposal would increase the Boston-Worcester commuter rail fare as well as the fare between Fitchburg and Boston from $7.75 to $8.25 each way, and comes on the heels of a 2007 increase from $6 to $7.75 each way.

It would also raise the cost of a monthly commuter rail pass for the Worcester line from $250 to $280 per month, and increase fares on the Boston subway from $2 to $2.50.

The fare hikes would bring in an estimated $69 million and would leave in place current polices granting half fare to senior citizens and students, and offering a $20 per month super-discounted student pass that allows unlimited travel on busses, subways and commuter rail in the Boston metropolitan area.

The agency is holding a series of public meetings taking testimony over the next two weeks including one in Worcester at Union Station from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 19 and another at the Ellis White Lecture Hall at Fitchburg State College from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 26. A final public hearing on the fare hikes is set for Boston on Aug. 27 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the state Transportation Building at 10 Park Plaza.

At the hearing yesterday several legislators blasted the proposal, complaining they had recently voted for the sales tax increase to avoid the need for new fare increases or service cuts this year.

"When I voted to increase the sales tax ... I did it in large part because the MBTA needed $160 million to close its deficit," said Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Melrose. Three weeks later, she said, MBTA announced a choice between the 20 percent fare increase or a major reduction in services at all levels, including cancellation of all weekend trains to Worcester.

Proposed service reductions would also eliminate train service from Boston to Worcester after 7 p.m. on weekdays.

Rep. Alice K. Wolf, D-Cambridge, said none of the seven legislators at the hearing finds the fare hikes acceptable, and she said they are taking them seriously despite the administration statements that they will be put on hold until more study is done.

"There should be no reason to raise fares or reduce service," Ms. Wolf said, in light of the increased appropriation to the MBTA this year. But she said if the MBTA is proceeding with the hearings, the fare hikes are still in play.

"If it was off the table, they could say fine and cancel all the hearings," she said.

Meanwhile, controversy continues over the terms of Mr. Grabauskas' severance package. He agreed to a buyout of his contract which would have expired in May, at the cost of $327,486 in severance salary and unused vacation and sick time. He left the post last Thursday.

While the size of the severance package payment has drawn its own controversy, Gov. Deval L. Patrick was unable to hold the line on the cost of the severance agreement. The governor indicated he opposed the severance payments.

Yesterday, the governor said he would consider the proposed fare increases after the experts' report is finished.

The bottom line: The MBTA proposal would increase the Boston-Worcester commuter rail fare, as well as the fare between Fitchburg and Boston, from $7.75 to $8.25 each way. It comes on the heels of a 2007 increase of $6 to $7.75 each way.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 11, 2009
Words:887
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