BOSTON (AP) — Activists chained their wheelchairs together and blocked traffic at a busy intersection in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse on Monday to protest fare hikes and service cuts scheduled to take effect July 1 on the MBTA.
The protesters, chanting “If we can’t ride, you can’t drive,” shut down traffic on Beacon Street for about 40 minutes before agreeing to move onto the sidewalk after Boston police officers cut the chains and threatened to remove one man from his wheelchair and arrest him to clear a lane for vehicles to get through.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority board voted in April to raise fares an average 23 percent along with some service cuts to help close a nearly $160 million deficit facing the Boston-area transit system.
The hikes are steeper for users of The Ride, the MBTA’s service for disabled riders, most of whom will see their fares double from $2 to $4 for one-way trips, and from $2 to $5 for people who live farther from the city. Transit officials say the service is too expensive to maintain at current prices.
The activists, five in wheelchairs and one woman on a motorized scooter, initially said they would not leave the intersection until Gov. Deval Patrick came out to meet with them. It was not immediately known if the governor was in the building or if he was aware of the demonstration.
“He’s the only person in a position of power to keep The Ride at its current level,” said Karen Schneiderman, of Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. “We want to know, where is the governor?”
As police attempted to reroute traffic from Beacon Street on to Park and Tremont Streets, Capt. Thomas Lee asked the activists to clear the street on their own. When they and a group of supporters refused, officers used a chain-cutter to remove the chains from the wheelchairs but did not immediately remove the demonstrators.
Instead, Lee asked Brian Shea, 54, of Somerville, to move his wheelchair far enough over so that one lane of traffic could get through on Beacon Street, which becomes one-way after Park Street. Lee said he would not stop the protest, but added that police needed to keep the street open for emergency vehicles and school buses.
Lee told Shea he would be removed from his wheelchair and arrested if he did not move, but after a brief discussion among the protesters they agreed to move their chairs onto a sidewalk in front of the Statehouse, where they continued to speak out.
Rob Park, 38, of Salem, who described himself as a community activist, said he relies on The Ride to get to doctor’s appointments and go shopping.
“We all contribute to the Massachusetts economy and all we want to do is be able to get out so we can continue to buy goods and services,” said Park. “And if you cut our ride, how are we going to be able to do that?”
The protest by the group calling itself the Coalition to Fight Back was not the first to be held in or around the Statehouse since the transit changes were approved. Last month, a group of older and disabled riders briefly disrupted House debate on the state budget, demanding more funds for public transit.
Occupy MBTA, an offshoot of the Occupy Boston movement, also staged a 10-day protest on the front steps of the Capitol.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.