- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

BOSTON (AP) - Drowned out by protesters with bullhorns, the board overseeing Boston’s public transit agency voted Monday to raise fares by an average 9.3 percent and put the additional money aside to be used only for service improvements on the aging system.

The unanimous vote by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s fiscal and management control board came at the end of a chaotic meeting that was shut down for almost a half-hour by the noisy demonstration. Officials estimated they would raise about $42 million for the fifth-largest transit system and oldest subway in America.

The board was poised to vote after nearly two hours of discussion at the state transportation building when the protesters, many affiliated with a group called the T Riders Union, suddenly jumped out of their seats and began loud chants opposing fare increases. Board members left the room but later returned and, with the chants making it nearly impossible to hear, approved the hikes after also moving to soften their impact on some riders including students, the elderly and disabled.

Several transit police officers entered the room but made no effort to silence or remove the protesters.

Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack called the disruption unfortunate and noted the board was attempting to do what many protesters actually wanted.

“I think the great irony here is that what the control board was trying to do that people in the room could not hear was to say, ‘We are going to mitigate the effects on our most vulnerable passengers,’” Pollack told reporters.

MBTA officials have defended the need for fare hikes as the system struggles with annual operating deficits and an estimated $7.3 billion backlog of deferred maintenance.

The board said the money raised by the fare hikes would be set aside so it could not be used for administrative costs. It would be only used for service upgrades and new equipment, such as the replacement of century-old signal technology on the Green Line.

Still, many riders pleaded with the board to postpone any increases.

“How dare the MBTA raise fares when we have to pay more and more for worse and worse service, especially for those of us who are disabled,” said Rebecca Gorlin, of Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood, who said she had autism.

Other riders said if the T must raise fares, the increase should be limited to no more than 5 percent every two years, a ceiling that some argue was established by a 2013 state law.

“We fully understand that the decision you must make is a difficult one,” said 91-year-old Boston resident Ann Stewart. “But there is a clear answer and that is to stand with the riders. Public transportation must remain accessible and affordable to the public.”

The board has cited progress in controlling runaway costs and improving service.

The MBTA’s projected operating deficit for the current fiscal year running through June 30 has been lowered from $170 million to $95 million, while the estimated gap for the next fiscal year has been cut from $242 million to $138 million, before the fare hikes.

Officials reported a 25 percent cut in overtime costs during the first weeks of 2016, fewer missed bus trips and improved on-time performance for commuter rail.

The board also voted last week to end late-night service on weekends.

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This story has been corrected to show that the fares will increase an average of 9.3 percent, not 9.2 percent.

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