For many people who came to the MBTA's Somerville meeting last night, the transportation discussion didn't begin at the meeting at 6 p.m., but at the pre-meeting rally organized by Occupy Somerville and Groundwork Somerville.
About 70 people gathered on Somerville High's front lawn at 5:30 p.m., waving signs and shouting slogans while community members spoke through a bullhorn.
"Let the banks pay for this," said Matthew McLaughlin, a member of Occupy Somerville and Save Our Somerville, after explaining that several of the banks to which the MBTA is indebted were also the recipients of major government bailouts. This led to group cheers of "banks got bailed out, we got sold out," a slogan that resurfaced throughout the rally and meeting.
A guitarist, a banjo player, and several others holding posterboard signs with lyrics led the crowd in a sing-along of "Charlie On The MTA," a 1949 song about a man unable to leave the Boston subways because he couldn't afford his exit fare.
Representative Denise Provost also took a turn at the bullhorn, explaining that she and Somerville's congressional delegation were absolutely "in solidarity" with those that oppose the T cuts.
Also at the rally was Representative Carl Sciortino, who told Patch, "The current proposals are unacceptable. Statewide transportation finance reform is needed, not just at the MBTA, but in all of our transit sectors."
Rally attendees streamed indoors half an hour later, and those who wanted to speak at the general meeting were asked to sign up at a table outside the auditorium.
A rocky start to the public hearing
The meeting began with chaos; after a very short speech about the building's emergency exits and the translation services available, the MBTA's Assistant General Manager For Development, Mark Boyle, was speaking about the availability of assistive listening devices and an older woman in the front row yelled, "This is our time to talk!"
She continued to yell the phrase repeatedly, which resulted in a standing ovationand some boos from the crowd as MBTA employees tried to restore order and keep her an appropriate distance from the seated panel. MBTA GM Jonathan Davis then took the microphone and said that they would get started hearing from community members. The crowd soon quieted when the microphone was given to Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.
Mayor opposes both cuts and fare increases
Mayor Curtatone, who described himself as the "CEO Of Somerville," gave a short speech at the event, saying, "We need to have a conversation in this Commonwealth that should start right here tonight," and expressed his opposition to both MBTA proposals for fare hikes and service cuts.
The testimony was dramatic at times. A woman speaking Haitian Creole was so loud and passionate her translator could barely be heard. She began screaming in a mixture of English and her native language into the microphone, yelling "This is murder, what you're doing is murder! You are killing us!"
A speaker named Rand Wilson pointed out that the MBTA's brochure on the proposals included nothing about potential jobs lost, and waved his finger at MBTA GM Davis, yelling "Shame on you!" Davis responded immediately, explaining that about 525 jobs are expected to be cut under either proposal.
Others took a different tack.
"You cannot take transportation away from the blind until you invent a car that blind people can drive," said a man who identified himself as legally blind. "You will be leaving the blind very dependent on their family, it will be institutionalization backwards."
Laura Weiner, a planner for the town of Arlington, pointed out that under the MBTA's 2nd scenario, seven of the 10 MBTA busses that currently go to Arlington would be axed. Members of the Arlington Board of Selectmen, which opposing the MBTA's proposals, also expressed that a loss of bus service would have a major impact on Arlington.
Many speakers expressed concerns about the loss of the 95 bus route in particular, saying that it would isolate the Mystic Public Housing Development from the rest of the region. “Us Mystic project kids rely on the 95, 100 percent,” one teenager said.
Community ideas for MBTA debt reduction
Many of the attendees brought ideas for bringing down the debt. Rachel Stark, an Arlington resident, said, “If the Big Dig generated debt for car infrastructure, it should be handed back to the cars.”
A Tufts grad student named Rebecca said, "We demand that the richest in our state pay for the MBTA, we demand that the big banks drop the debt." An Occupy Somerville member said that there are "58,000 millionaires in Massachusetts" and suggested that a tax $2,000 levied on each of them would eliminate the T's debt. Local resident Ron Newman suggested that, "instead of cutting service back, the MBTA should default on their debt. Let the banks and the hedge funds pay for this, not us."
Others, like John Walkey, organizer of the Transportation For Massachusetts Coalition, suggested that the problem needs to be considered a statewide one.
"People who need transportation are not just in Boston," and the possible negative effects of poor MBTA service on the entire Commonwealth's economy were discussed by many, he said.
The Fast Five, a team of mock superheroes connected to the T Rider's Union, also spoke at the event. Each member of the super team was dressed to represent a particular solution to the T's deficit problem, and their presentation concluded with the appearance of a supervillian dressed as "Big Dig Debt," who the Five then chased out of the auditorium.
Wide support for alternative solutions
Even MBTA General Manager Davis is unhappy with the prospects of service cuts and fare increases. He called the service cuts in the second scenario proposed "draconian," and emphasized throughout the night that the T does not want to take either measure, that the $161 million deficit has put them in this position, and that they are holding these meetings to seek creative solutions.
Several citizens also mentioned "thinking big," and suggested the T look to public transit in European cities, not just in American cities as the T is currently doing, for inspiration. Ideas from cheaper self-propelled rail cars, skip-stop service, and "Zip Jitneys," a giant bike-like transportation contraption, were proposed.
Although the meeting was scheduled to end at 8 p.m., MBTA officials allowed everyone who had taken a number to speak. Davis offered to speak with any of the attendees directly after the meeting concluded, and, when it ended at 8:45, he began doing just that.
The MBTA is holding many public hearings and meetings throughout the Boston region over the next few months, but Davis said that "We will probably be giving to our board a proposal to close the budget deficit at the March 14th board meeting."
Those who don't attend the meetings can also voice their opinion by contacting the MBTA at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 617-222-5200.
The T has broken their proposed changes down into two "scenarios," one that involves a larger fare increase and fewer service cuts, and the other that involves a smaller increase and greater service cuts, mostly to suburban bus routes. Both options include service reductions or eliminations to buses, the Commuter Rail, light rail, ferry and THE RIDE service area.
Under Scenario 1, a subway ride would go from the current $1.70 Charlie Card fare to $2.40 (about a 41 percent increase). A bus Charlie Card fare would increase from $1.25 to $1.75 (a 40 percent hike). Parking rates would also increase by 28 percent.
- Scenario 2 would raise fares for a subway Charlie Card from $1.70 to $2.25 (about a 32 percent increase) and a bus Charlie Card from $1.25 to $1.50 (a 20 percent increase). Parking rates would also increase by 20 percent.