The first set of speakers line up Wednesday at Cambridge’s City Hall during an MBTA hearing about potential fare hikes and service cuts. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A hearing on public transit fare hikes and service cuts facing Cambridge and the state drew 300 people to City Hall on Wednesday, including some 125 who signed up to speak directly to state legislators and MBTA officials. The crowd, called about average for the ongoing series of 30 meetings but smaller by 65 from Somerville’s the day before, overflowed council chambers and was diverted to televisions set up around the building.

The roughly four-hour meeting heard from several high school students, representatives of the Occupy movement and workers testifying to their worries about getting to and from jobs, but it was the disabled that seemed to speak the loudest about the cuts and increases and $161 million deficit sparking them.

“I strongly object to our class of riders being singled out to pay more in rate increases, which is outright discriminatory,” said Don Summerfield, a member of the Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities, noting that while all forms of public transit face increases, one proposed for the disabled users of The Ride — at 500 percent, by far the largest in the scenarios proposed so far by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority — “is potentially putting their lives at risk. Five hundred percent is not acceptable.”

Another speaker went further, suggested that making it harder for disabled people to get medical care was “murder.” A veteran noted that steps being taken to erase the deficit would keep hundreds of sick and disabled people who served in the military from easy access to Veterans Affairs hospitals in Bedford, West Roxbury and at Boston Medical Center.

The Ride

Rachel Tanenhaus, a public health researcher, suggested that it was improvements to the T system, not cuts, that would result in the huge savings the state clearly needed from the The Ride. “If the T were accessible, we’d ride it, and you’d save lots of money on The Ride,” she said.

In Tanenhaus’ view, The Ride “was not created to be sustainable,” but as a Band-Aid disabled people could use until the T was expanded adequately and the money-losing vans could be eliminated with more bus, T and commuter rail service.

The deputy director of communications for the state Department of Transportation, Lydia Rivera, describes The Ride differently — as a permanent, federally mandated service for the disabled that fills in gaps between other forms of public transit, which means it would have to be maintained even with a dramatic expansion of other kinds of mass transit. The Ride is budgeted at about $60 million per year at a cost of $40 per round-trip ride, Rivera estimated, for which a user is charged $4. The state is looking first at ensuring everyone using The Ride is eligible and “to make the process more stringent,” although it already requires a doctor’s note for use.

Still, agency General Manager Richard Davey assured the crowd that the move to make a user of The Ride from outside the metro area pay $12 per one-way trip rather than $2 was no more certain than any of the steps laid out in the agency’s two initial scenarios.

“Your voices are being heard”

“Nothing has been decided. It’s not just proposal one or proposal two. We are listening to all the thoughts, ideas and suggestions,” Davey said. “We understand this affects people. We understand it may leave some without any transportation option. We are trying our best to mitigate any type of fare increase and service reduction. We’re not there yet, but I’ve been to at least 20 or 21 of these public hearings and I can tell you your voices are being heard.”

He mentioned specifically an idea in Cambridge’s packet of suggestions, about discounts for seniors riding at off-peak hours, as one that is being considered. And it turns out one of the main worries for Cambridge — the end of weekend E train service on the green line to the Lechmere stop, Cambridgeside Galleria mall, Museum of Science and East Cambridge and NorthPoint neighborhoods — can be dismissed, as service will be replaced by another train. (“Why didn’t you publicize that?” a resident chided T officials during her time at the microphone.)

When a high school senior mentioned she would eventually have to leave the area to look for work where there was better public transportation, it was a concern that would be repeated throughout the night by the disabled, including several visually impaired residents — among them one who’d moved from Georgia, where poor public transit made a commute impossible, and Tanenhaus. “I live here in part because I can be independent here. And if I can’t be independent here, I will go live somewhere else. I work downtown, I work full time, I live as independent a life as possible and there are three keys to my independence: one is good training, I was lucky that way; two is the best guide doggie ever; and three is the MBTA,” she said.

Economic effect

It was a concern reflected also by Terrence Smith, director of government affairs at the city’s Chamber of Commerce, who said T service was the reason Cambridge was an economic engine for Massachusetts, and by Tim Rowe, chief executive of the the Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square, who noted that about half of the square’s workers commute by T. “If we want the state’s economic engine to grow, we’re going to need to have not just no service cuts, but we’re going to need to grow the T,” he said. “The estimates I’ve seen are that, just looking at the red line, demand on the red line will double in the next 20 years.”

There are signs that’s already happening. Davey noted that last year’s use of the T was the highest in history, and that January’s ridership was a leap upward yet again: 10 percent over the same month a year ago.

“We have a need for more service, we hear that,” Davey said, acknowledging also that cuts in weekend and night service will have further economic impact in making getting to work impossible for many in lower-paying jobs. “Everyone in the commonwealth, whether they take public transportation or they don’t, should be concerned about these proposals. Because it will increase congestion through loss of ridership, it will affect the economy, it will affect jobs. All citizens of the commonwealths should be concerned about these recommendations because of the impact it will have on the economy, jobs, air quality and quality of life.”

Sources of the problem

There were a number of suggestions made over the night of where to find money without raising fares, with many of the suggestions focusing on ending cheats at levels micro — fares are not always collected when the silver line leaves the airport, for instance — and macro, with several people noting that The Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. and Veolia Transportation North America, the private operator contracted to run the MBTA’s commuter rail for a decade starting in 2003, wasn’t being held accountable for delays, station cleanliness or missed performance measures, losing the state an estimated $49.6 million.

“That was not the most perfect contract. We certainly have learned,” Davey said, promising that contract negotiations next year would be “an open and transparent process.”

He also confirmed that at $5.2 billion in debt, the MBTA is likely the most highly leveraged transit system in the country. With 30 cents of every dollar collected going to debt service, it essentially wipes out all fares paid into the system, and $110 million a year goes toward interest and principal on paying off the inherited cost of permitting the Big Dig, a gigantic car-focused project. “I do believe it’s a valid discussion to say whether or not the MBTA should pay for those costs,” Davey said. “However, we did issue the debt and we are currently responsible for making those payments.”

Cambridge city councillor Ken Reeves fell on the side of questioning whether the MBTA should pay.

“We have a huge T debt that wasn’t really the T’s fault either, but it was given to you and and you want to give it to us. We think it makes more sense for us all to give it to the Legislature,” he told state officials. “To saddle the T with debt from the Big Dig doesn’t make sense.”

Final recommendations on next fiscal year’s budget goes to the MBTA’s board in March and are voted on in April.  Changes would likely start with the fiscal year, July 1.