By JAY LINDSAY
BOSTON (AP) -- Riders on Boston's public transportation system are bracing for a steep fare hike that goes into effect Sunday and may be just the start of coming cost increases and service cuts.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is enacting an average 23 percent fare increase to help close the regional transit system's $160 million deficit.
The increases are more onerous for certain customers, including some disabled riders, who will see fares for The Ride service at least double to $4 or $5 one-way, depending on how far they live from the city.
Bus fares will rise a quarter, to $1.50, and subway fares will go up from $1.70 to $2 for passengers who pay with CharlieCards.
Several bus routes and some weekend commuter rail runs will be eliminated, but the T avoided drastic service cuts by tapping several one-time revenue sources -- such as snow removal funds left unused during the mild winter.
It might not be able to avoid major cuts again next year, said MBTA general manager Jonathan Davis.
"This is not a permanent budget solution," he said.
Davis said the agency's fixed costs are still growing, and it faces another $100 million budget deficit next year. A long-term solution to the system's chronic funding woes is needed, he said.
Sunday's fare hikes are the first since 2007, and officials say the MBTA's fares will still be lower than in other major cities, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. But opponents say the hikes are a blow to the working class and disabled, and the increases have been vigorously protested, including by wheelchair activists who chained themselves together to block a busy intersection in front of the Statehouse in May.
A month earlier, a group of older and disabled riders interrupted the Massachusetts House's budget deliberations with chants including, "They say cut back, we say fight back!"
Lee Matsueda of the T Riders Union, a customer advocacy group with about 100 members, said with the fare hikes almost official, state lawmakers need to be reminded that MBTA funding reform is essential because things are projected to get worse.
"People can't get complacent and imagine this is going to be it," he said.
The fare increases hit the average rider hard since many have no other way to get to work, Matsueda said. And the increases on The Ride will be crushing for disabled riders, some of whom are living on fixed incomes and will see their freedom to get around severely limited, he said.
A group calling itself Boston Fare Strike is urging riders to refuse to pay starting Sunday, and it's holding a public training session on the tactic that day in Copley Square. Strategies include holding subway gates open, slipping onto the backs of buses or persuading drivers not to charge them. Organizers say the new fares are unjust, and hurting the MBTA's bottom line may be the only way to force lawmakers to view affordable access to public transit as a right they have a duty to protect.
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said a fare strike is selfish and misguided "and will serve to do nothing more than worsen the MBTA's already fragile financial condition."
Activists have been heartened by indications from House Speaker Robert DeLeo that transportation will be a priority in the legislative session that starts in January. Matsueda said that gives activists six months to push for solutions, such as renegotiating lower interest rates with banks that hold MBTA debt. He also said the MBTA has been saddled with a disproportionate share of the costs of Boston's bloated $15 billion Big Dig highway project, and that should change.
New taxes should also be considered, Matsueda said, though he said his group was not yet recommending anything specific.
A proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2007 to increase the gas tax by 21 cents failed. And although DeLeo, Patrick and other lawmakers have pledged to address the MBTA funding problems as part of a broader transportation reform, including finding ways to fix roads and bridges, they'll face resistance because any meaningful package would likely require new taxes or fees.
The MBTA said that as Sunday approaches it's working hard to remind people about the service cuts and fare hikes. The agency said its public information campaign has included newspaper ads, email blasts, public service announcements and laminated notices at bus stops on routes facing major changes -- 1,300 total.
Davis said that until lawmakers find a long-term funding solution, "the MBTA will continue to do everything it can to improve service despite our fiscal challenges."