T board scales back service cuts, takes swipe at Beacon Hill
Rare 3-2 split on board over Legislature's failure to provide more revenues
THE MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board approved a series of scaled-back service cuts on Monday and then, in an apparent swipe at Beacon Hill, voted not to raise fares on bus and subway riders until service hours and ridership on those transportation modes return to pre-COVID levels.
Brian Lang, a member of the control board, proposed the fare amendment after expressing frustration about lawmakers who tell him and his colleagues not to cut service but then do nothing to provide the revenues needed to maintain service.
“Taxes have turned into a dirty word,” Lang said. “The Legislature is afraid of it.”
The vote on the amendment was 3-2 on a board that has shown remarkably little division over the years. Voting in favor were board chair Joe Aiello, board vice chair Monica Tibbits-Nutt, and Lang. Voting against were Chrystal Kornegay and newcomer Tim Sullivan.
Kornegay said the amendment was “too big for me to vote on at this moment.” Sullivan said locking in the current board and its successor to no fare hikes for what could be several years was unwise when the board is having difficulty predicting what’s going to happen with ridership levels over the next three months.
Tibbits-Nutt said she shared Lang’s frustration. She said there seems to be a disconnect with the Legislature on the funding issue. “Every time we do this it falls on the back of riders,” she said.
Stephanie Pollack, Baker’s transportation secretary, tried to dissuade the control board from voting on the amendment, suggesting a more appropriate venue for making its displeasure known would be its annual report, which is due by January 1. She also noted that taxpayers are already paying a heavy burden to support the T. Pre-COVID, she said, taxpayers provided $2 for every dollar provided by riders. Now, with ridership way down, she said, the ratio is $10 of taxpayer money for every dollar of fares.
But Lang pushed back at Pollack, saying taxpayers fund roads and rarely ask drivers for any money to help pay for them. He said that approach subsidizes drivers at the expense of transit riders. “It is not sustainable,” he said.
Another Lang amendment dealing with restoring service levels to 100 percent of their pre-COVID levels was withdrawn after concerns were raised by Kornegay, who said she would favor some sort of action dealing with means-tested fares.
The control board then took up the T’s revised service reductions. Sullivan raised the possibility of challenging Lang’s amendment again, but Lang objected on procedural grounds, and Sullivan decided to drop it. The T’s new service change proposal was then approved by a 3-2 vote, with Sullivan and Kornegay voting no because the overall package included Lang’s original amendment. The vote was also conditional on approval of still-to-be-done equity and environmental analyses of the proposal and a possible change down the road to address weeknight riders on commuter rail. Board members also said they would decide in mid-March whether additional service is needed over the next three months and provide the funding to implement that service, if feasible.
The narrow votes were a surprise ending to a four-hour meeting that for the most part focused on how to match service to reduced ridership levels and save money to deal with a budget shortfall coming in fiscal 2022, which begins on July 1. The control board approved a T plan that reduced the frequency of services on all of the T’s modes while scaling back many of the more drastic service cuts the transit authority proposed last month.
A proposal to shut down commuter rail service after 9 p.m. on weekdays starting in March was not changed, although members of the control board said they wanted to explore some options over the next few months to address riders who use the system at that time. Lang raised the possibility of restoring commuter rail service after 9 p.m., but Pollack said the need wasn’t there, pointing out that weekday service after 9 p.m. costs $7 million to provide and serves less than 1,000 passengers.
“It’s a lot of service for very few people,” said Pollack. “We need to save money on commuter rail.”
T officials said they received thousands of comments from the public that convinced them it was wrong to eliminate service entirely on any mode and to eliminate access at various times of day, and the new proposal generally addresses those concerns.
Aiello, the chair of the control board, said he was glad to hear T staff admit they don’t have all the answers and wanted to hear from users on where changes in the original proposal were needed.
“It’s rare that an organization as big as the T can say we need your help and listen,” he said.
The reduced service levels are part of an effort to match ridership levels and service and deal with a steep loss in fare revenue caused by COVID-19. Federal stimulus funds of nearly $1 billion allowed the T to balance its budget last year and this year, but the transit authority is currently projecting a large shortfall in fiscal 2022, which begins July 1.
Although many transit advocates have pressured the MBTA to not cut service at all during the pandemic, T officials decided to squeeze savings out of the budget now to help reduce the financial impact next year.
“We should be saving money now while the demand is not there to justify full restitution of pre-COVID service levels,” Pollack said.
The revised service cutback proposal differs from mode to mode but in each case is less severe than was originally proposed this fall. T officials were not able to provide an estimate of savings under the new plan. T officials said layoffs were possible under the latest plan, but provided no estimates of how many jobs could be lost.
The bus proposal changed minimally. It still calls for a 5 percent reduction in service on what the T classifies as essential routes and 20 percent on nonessential routes. Service will now continue after midnight and on five routes (43, 131, 136, 714, and 716) that had been slated for suspension. The 230 bus will also continue to operate between Braintree and Quincy Center. Most of the bus changes will start taking effect in March.
With the subway system, the T decided to reverse its earlier decision to shut down service after midnight, but it will still reduce service levels 20 percent on the Green, Orange and Red Lines and 5 percent on the Blue Line. The T also abandoned a plan to halt service at Brigham Circle on the Green Line’s E branch and continue service to the end at Heath Street. The subway service changes would start in March.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said the service level reduction on the Red Line would be fairly moderate, increasing the interval between trains from 4 ½ minutes to nearly 5 ½ minutes.
For commuter rail, the T is retaining weekend service on the five lines, which officials said account for two-thirds of weekend ridership. The T also plans to shut down five commuter rail stops instead of the six in its original plan. The one now exempted is Cedar Park on the Haverhill Line.Ferry service, which had been slated to be eliminated, will now be retained at reduced levels on the Hingham-Hull-Boston route. Direct service between Boston and Hingham and Boston and Charlestown is being eliminated.
The T’s paratransit service, called The Ride, does not change much in the new proposal. The original proposal called for expanding the scheduling window from 30 to 40 minutes, which is being retained in the current proposal.