Gussie Harris came to a public hearing in Baltimore yesterday to plead the case of Minnie Smith and thousands of other senior citizens and handicapped people who say the Mass Transit Administration's proposed nickel increase in their bus and Metro fares could mean ripping the fabric of their daily lives.
Take 69-year-old Minnie Smith, for example. Every day, she catches the transit bus to the Forest Park Senior Center, arriving at about 8:45 a.m. in time for breakfast at 9.
Between 10 and 12, she is busy in ceramics, basket-weaving or music. At noon, she shares in the lunchtime Eating Together Program. After lunch, she plays bingo.
About 2 p.m., she bids farewell to her friends and catches the bus to return home.
"Most of the senior citizens that I represent use public transportation as a means of enhancing and enriching our lives," Ms. Harris told an MTA hearing officer in a War Memorial Building auditorium packed with about 130 people -- mostly senior citizens and handicapped people.
"We have to travel not only back and forth to the center, but to take care of our personal needs. . . . With the high cost of providing for food, shelter, clothing and medical attention, we cannot afford an increase for our transportation. It will definitely curtail our use of public transportation."
Minnie Smith and Gussie Harris had the full backing of the Baltimore City Council. And Mary Pat Clarke, council president, led the protest against fare increases for the elderly and handicapped.
"A nickel doesn't sound like much," Ms. Clarke said. "But in the fixed income, prescription-intensive, mobility-limited life of Baltimore's retirees and handicapped, even a nickel puts us in a pickle and we protest, especially since MTA has so little to gain and so many other places to turn."
Ms. Clarke said the MTA has predicted that the increase from 35 cents to 40 cents will result in a decrease in ridership of 290,000 seniors. "So MTA will gain only $188,500 a year, while thousands of faithful and dependent patrons lose mobility and sociability in the process," she said.
"Commuters with jobs will pay less because seniors pay more," Ms. Clarke said. "MTA is making ends meet with no increase proposed for zone changes, express service or premium service."
Most members of the audience wore circular paper images of an enlarged nickel with a diagonal line drawn through it signifying "No." A gray-haired woman held up a sign that said "Not Another Nickel."
The increase "will force more seniors to become housebound," agreed Sadie S. Matthews, chairman of the senior transportation task force for the Baltimore Commission on Aging.
In addition to the nickel increase for seniors, the MTA is proposing to add 10 cents to the base fare of $1. Student fares would increase five cents to 75 cents. Adult tokens would increase 10 cents to $1.05.
No immediate increase is sought in the cost of passes or transfers.
State law requires 50 percent of the MTA's operating costs to be recovered from customer fares, MTA hearing officer Morris L. Wilson said, and the last increase was in December 1989.
Mr. Wilson said that hearing officers who are conducting seven public hearings in the area will meet and make recommendations to Ron Hartman, MTA administrator and general manager, by Feb. 15. Mr. Hartman then will decide whether to modify the proposed fares.