T gears up for rich-poor divide in service cuts
Seeks to prioritize service for low-income, people of color, and those without cars
THE MBTA OVERSIGHT BOARD on Monday began formulating principles to follow as it prepares to cut the transit authority’s operating budget by $300 million to $600 million, with T officials recommending the preservation or enhancement of services that cater to minority and low-income customers without cars and a reduction in low-ridership services such as commuter rail and ferry that tend to serve wealthier people who can more easily find alternative ways to move about.
The discussion at the Fiscal and Management Control Board was fairly vague and lacked specifics – those are coming soon and will be honed over the next few months – but it appears the pre-pandemic discussion about expanding service is giving way to a debate about how best to cut service amid diminished demand.
Steve Poftak, the general manager of the T, said he and his staff want to focus available resources on customers who need the T the most and have either continued to ride the system or are likely to come back soon. “We have to be realistic,” he said. “We’re facing significant deficits.”
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack warned that the cutting process won’t be easy. “This is going to be painful because any conversation about not having enough resources is painful,” she said. “We can’t afford to run the system we ran before COVID-19.”
The debate has been precipitated by a severe dropoff in ridership amidst COVID-19 as businesses shut down and employees began working from home. Bus ridership, which tends to cater to low-income and minority customers, has rebounded to about 35 percent of pre-COVID levels. The Blue Line is also at about 35 percent, but the Red, Orange, and Green lines are rebounding more slowly and are currently in the mid-20 percent range. Commuter rail and ferry ridership is less than 10 percent of what it was prior to COVID.
T officials say their monthly survey of riders reveals a major shift in who is using the transit system. On February 20, before coronavirus, people earning less than $43,500 accounted for 28 percent of T riders, people earning between $43,500 and $75,999 made up 25 percent, and those earning more than $76,000 made up 50 percent. In August, low-income people accounted for 43 percent of riders, the middle-income group 28 percent, and the upper middle to high income group 30 percent.
T officials think they can make it through this year with an infusion of federal aid, but that money is expected to run out sometime next year and T officials say they are facing a shortfall ranging from $300 million to $600 million in fiscal 2022, which begins next July.
There’s a lot of uncertainty – about when a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 will emerge, when employees will return to offices and in what numbers, and when the T’s fare revenues will rebound. Timing is also a concern, as the T’s rigid union and contractual environment makes it difficult to change schedules quickly.
While T staff and members of the control board talked conceptually on Monday, sources say it’s unlikely whole commuter rail lines or ferry services would be eliminated. Instead, the number of trips on a particular line could be reduced, trains could run with fewer cars, or “alternative service models” could be developed.
The presentation to the board said some riders may need to walk further, transfer more, or pay more for service.
Kat Benesh, the T’s chief of operations strategy, policy, and oversight, gave one example that has already been implemented. She said the 325 and 326 express buses from Medford to Haymarket Station in Boston were suspended and passengers redirected to other routes.
Joseph Aiello, the chair of the board, said the T should start paring back its costs now to reduce the amount that needs to be cut in fiscal 2022 and avoid what he described as “pretty nasty things.”
Aiello also suggested thinking outside the box. For example, he said, it might make sense to slash commuter rail fares on many lines to see if that would bring back some customers and reduce the size of the operating deficit. “If you have a product no one is buying, let’s change the product or the price,” he said.
Rob DiAdamo, executive director of commuter rail, proposed a series of revenue-neutral scheduling changes for this fall’s commuter rail schedule. He proposed spreading out commuter rail service, giving riders less rush-hour trains but providing them with more regular options over the course of the day. On the Providence Line, for example, he proposed trains every 60 minutes rather than offering service every 20 minutes at some times of the day and every two hours at other times.
DiAdamo said he wanted to run 39 more trains this fall compared to last fall, with 32 of the new trips serving communities of color in Brockton, Lynn, and parts of Boston served by the Fairmount Line. DiAdamo said the additional cost of the trips would be offset by shutting down pilot projects offering service to Foxborough next to Gillette Stadium and late-night train service to the South Shore.
The state is currently allowing passengers to board in Lynn and along the Fairmount Line and pay a fare equivalent to the $2.40 fare a subway rider pays. It’s unclear whether the strategy is boosting commuter rail ridership. T officials said the number of riders boarding the train in Lynn has increased slightly, but ridership overall on the line (which originates in Newburyport) has remained static.
Some members of the control board suggested it might make sense to try the same approach in Brockton, where commuter rail passengers currently pay $8.75 to travel to South Station. Poftak, however, said he worries that the lower fare might attract riders from neighboring communities who would normally use other T services.
T officials released budget data for July that was somewhat positive. Instead of losing $21 million, which was the projected loss, the T lost only $1.1 million, largely because fare revenue for the month came in higher than projected. The T’s current budget forecasts fare revenue to remain at about 10 percent of pre-COVID levels until January, when it is expected to rise fairly steadily over the next six months to 60 percent of pre-COVID levels.Board members are not optimistic those targets will be met, as a new survey of employers by the T found that many businesses don’t plan to bring their workers back before the end of the year and many are likely to have employees continue to work from home well into next year. Even those bringing their employees back to workplaces are telling the T they are likely to do so in shifts, which means the overall number of passengers riding the T to work will rise incrementally.
Pollack said the budget numbers in July were better than expected, but she urged members of the control board to not read too much into them. “I wouldn’t get too excited yet on how the fare revenue is going to come back,” she said.