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MBTA Riders Interrupt Mass. House Budget Debate

Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press
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(Photo credit: Andrea Courtois)

(Photo credit: Andrea Courtois)

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BOSTON (AP) — A group of older and disabled public transportation riders interrupted the Massachusetts House’s budget deliberations Tuesday, leading court officers to temporarily shut down the public’s access to the House chambers.

The riders, some using wheelchairs and canes, said they were upset with increases in the cost for The Ride, the service for disabled passengers in the metropolitan Boston area and a similar service in the Pioneer Valley.

Some said they wanted a moratorium on all fare increases set to take effect July 1.

The protesters were escorted out of the public gallery on the fourth floor of the Massachusetts Statehouse while chanting “the riders united will never be defeated” and “they say cut back, we say fight back.”

The MBTA’s Board of Directors earlier this month approved a series of fare increases including doubling the cost of The Ride service from $2 to $4 for a one-way ride for most riders. The cost would jump to $5 for so-called premium fares for customers outside of the area the T is required by law to serve.

“This increase would mean that I would not have a social life, I couldn’t get to appointments. I’m a pretty busy person,” said Denise Jackson, 53, of Lynn, one of the protesters. “I would be totally isolated in my house.”

Massachusetts Senior Action Council President Carolyn Villers said the activists decided to interrupt the budget debate because they felt like they’d run out of options.

“They feel like they have gone through all of the proper channels. They’ve lobbied their legislators. They’ve done everything right and they’re facing these extreme hikes,” Villers said.

After the protesters began chanting, House leaders called on court officers to clear the public gallery of about 150 people watching the budget debate, whether or not they were part of the protest.

Once the protesters left the Statehouse, the public gallery was later reopened.

The protest began as lawmakers were starting to debate a series of amendments to the budget related to transportation issues.

Lawmakers do not directly oversee the operations of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, but some of the protesters said they hope to pressure legislators to support a cap on fare increases.

“People were there to send a clear message to the speaker and the other members of the House of Representatives that people are here, they’re not going anywhere,” said Lee Matsueda of the T Riders Union, a coalition of groups that advocate for riders.

One of the protesters, John Robinson, 63, of Somerville, lives in a disabled elderly building, is legally blind in one eye and visually impaired in other.

He said for some, access to The Ride is literally a matter of life and death.

“If they raise the fares on The Ride, these people will have to choose between transportation and food, or transportation and medication.” he said. “We have people who go to dialysis treatments. We have people who go to chemotherapy treatments.”

The protest came on the second full day of debate on the House’s proposed $32.3 billion budget plan for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Lawmakers are sifting through more than 800 proposed amendments to the spending plan. Many are likely to be voted down without debate, while others of similar subject matter will be consolidated into single proposals for debate.

Democratic leaders say the budget takes a balanced approach between maintaining essential services while continuing to hold the line on spending and taxes.

The Massachusetts Senate is next in line in the state budget debate.

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Associated Press Writer Bob Salsberg contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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