Waiting in the cold at the corner of Moore and Leonard streets in Belmont Center, Geoff Jones of Snake Hill Road looks down Leonard for the number 74 bus that travels from the Center to Harvard Square, a trip Jones takes each workday.
"It's by far the most convenient means for me to travel (and) it's best for the environment for which I am very committed," said Jones.
Not only does Jones take the bus to his job at Harvard, he and his family use the nearby Belmont MBTA Commuter Rail station to travel to appointments in Boston and, on the weekends, to attractions such as the Museum of Science and the harbor.
"I use it all around and appreciate it. It's one of the reasons we decided to live in Belmont," said Jones.
Yet the modes of transit Jones takes are threatened as the MBTA, the region's mass transit authority, struggles with a massive and growing $161 million budget gap, a fiscal breach T officials propose to fill by eliminating service and increasing fees.
And those cuts will hit Belmont hard: Three bus routes will be eliminated under what is being called Scenario 2, ending all bus service to Belmont Center, the town’s commercial center, while weekend and late night commuter rail service to Belmont and Waverley stations is halted.
The other plan, Scenario 1, would jack up fares by 50 percent but keep nearly all the buses and trains running.Fare Changes Current Scenario 1 Scenario 2 Bus (adult) $1.25 $1.75 $1.50 Bus (student/senior) $.60/$.40 $1.10 $.75 Subway (adult) $1.70 $2.40 $2.25 Subway (student/senior) $.60/$.85 $1.50 $1.10 Charlie Ticket $2 $3 $3 Commuter Rail $4.25 $6.50 $6 Service Changes
Bus 74 7 days/wk 7 days/wk no service Bus 75 7 days/wk 7 days/wk no service Bus 78 7 days/wk Weekdays no service
The call to drastically curtail bus and commuter rail service is particularly astonishing to Jones.
"It is complete absurd and damaging," said Jones. "I don't see how they can defend that."
The proposed cuts would do long lasting damage not only to mass transit participation in Belmont but hurt the populations who are committed to using the service, according to many Belmont residents who have been following the debate.
"Young people use the T to go out in the evenings, workers use the T at odd hours and the only way to access Belmont would be by the 73 (bus route) which goes to Waverley Square," said Anne Paulsen, who is a member of the state's Transportation Advisory Committee
"Many people would be affected and mostly those who do not have other options," said the former state representative and selectman.
In addition, fees on the Number 73 bus route – the electric trackless trolley from Harvard to Waverley squares – one of the most heavily used routes in the MBTA system, would increase in an economic environment that could deter usage.
Commuter rail impact
While the elimination of the bus routes would have the most immediate impact, cuts to commuter rail service would be equally harmful, said Ian Todreas, co-chairman of the Belmont Energy Committee who follows transportation issues for the group.
"Although regular weekly riders number in the hundreds ... it is probably valued highly as another mobility option by many, many more residents," said Todreas, who also commutes by rail.
Losing that option would mean a longer and more convoluted commute to work and back for everyone using the T, he said.
Not only will service cuts hurt many in Belmont – from the dedicated commuter such as Geoff Jones, to those of limited income who depend on affordable transit for employment in Boston – it could have a depressing effect on commercial activity.
"I don’t have the precise information on ridership, but the long-term plan for the town’s economic development relies heavily on our proximity to Boston and the availability of both rail and bus transit," said Ralph Jones, chairman of the Belmont Board of Selectmen.
While the cuts will cause a major effect on commuters, all residents will feel the impact, according to Todreas.
"When access to well-used mass transit is removed, proximate home values and business activity usually suffer," he said, noting that prospective homeowners and renters value having the option to use it for commuting, travel to Boston or Cambridge and other trips when they don't wish to take a car.
There will be a direct relationship between the number of cars on the road and the fare hikes if they are raised too high and some businesses will lose both employees and customers who need public transportation to access shopping and work, said Paulsen.
"The (Department of Transportation) has been clear about the fact that the roads will be more crowded leading to more environmental impacts and there will be a negative impact on the businesses," she said.
Back into the car
The elimination of the bus line would put Craig, a Belmont resident waiting for the 7:17 a.m. commuter rail train to Boston's North Station, back into his car.
Having missed his early bus to Harvard, Craig is able to take the train to get to work on time in Kendall Square in Cambridge.
"Eliminating those buses would be a problem," said Craig, noting that many of the trains bypass the two Belmont stations during peak rush hours.
"I would then have to drive to work," he noted.
Since announcing its proposal, criticism of the MBTA has been loud and constant. The outpouring of disapproval to the schemes has resulted in the MBTA Advisory Board proposing a third option in which fare hikes are limited to 25 percent, service would be kept at current levels, there would be a transfer of the ownership of T services to state agencies and the T would solicit cash from public and private entities that benefit from public transit including universities and companies on commuter and bus lines.
The proposal would result in $79 million in savings and $91.6 million in new revenue for the MBTA, according to the board.
For all of the T faults, mass transit as a mode of transportation allows for large number of people to move around efficiently and inexpensively, reduces congestion and pollution while improving and supporting economic development, said Todreas.
Since everyone gains from mass transit, resolving the debt and budget gap should not borne by either the MBTA or the commuters they serve.
"These benefits are widely distributed to all citizens across our region, not just the riders," said Todreas.
"Most transportation infrastructure such as maintaining bridges, building roads, removing snow and trash, doesn't try to nor is expected to pay for itself," he said.
"The price increases are significant under both scenarios, but I believe that Belmont residents could more readily afford the marginal cost increases more than the complete elimination of service," said Ralph Jones.
For Jones and Craig and nearly everyone on the commuter rail and bus stops, paying more to keep the level of service being provided currently has overwhelming support.
"I would rather pay the higher fees than lose the buses," said Craig.
"There is no point having a low-cost service if there is no service," said Jones before stepping onto the bus to work.
The MBTA is holding two public meetings close to Belmont to discuss the two proposed scenarios of service cuts and/or fee increases:
Wednesday, Feb. 29
Cambridge Citywide Senior Center
806 Massachusetts Ave.
6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Thursday, March 1
Waltham Government Center, in the auditorium
119 School St.
6 p.m. to 8 p.m.