T proposes $128m in service cuts across system
Ferries eliminated, commuter rail shut down weeknights, weekends
THE MBTA on Monday proposed a series of major service cuts starting next spring and summer to right-size an agency that has lost roughly three-quarters of its ridership during the pandemic and to help address a projected $579 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year that begins next July.
The T is proposing to eliminate all ferry service and scale back operations to varying degrees on all other modes. Commuter rail service would be eliminated entirely on weekends and after 9 p.m. on weekdays. Bus and subway service would halt at midnight. Total savings are estimated at $128 million in fiscal 2022, which begins next July.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said staff reductions will accompany the service cutbacks, but he declined to be specific. “There is likely to be a reduction in head count,” he said.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said $827 million in federal stimulus funds allowed the T to balance its budget last year and this year, giving the T time to make surgical service cuts as needed. “This is not a slash and burn. This is not an across-the-board approach,” she said.
“Using limited resources to operate nearly empty trains, ferries, and buses is not a responsible use of the funding provided by riders, communities, and taxpayers, and it does not help support the transportation needs of our region. Saving resources now will help the MBTA to bring back service when it is needed after the pandemic has faded,” Poftak said in an open letter to T customers.
Joe Aiello, the chair of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, said during the board’s virtual meeting that more than 500 emails and 100 voicemails had been submitted, nearly all of them dealing with the proposed service cuts. The board played what it called a representative sample of the messages, and nearly all opposed the service cuts. The opponents included transit advocates, lawmakers, and city officials, including Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu and Chelsea City Manager Tom Abrosino. There was also a large group of Hull and Hingham residents, who complained about the proposed elimination of ferry service, which they said would make their commutes more difficult and drive down the value of property they own.
In a briefing with reporters prior to the meeting, Poftak and Pollack said the prospect of a COVID-19 vaccine being rolled out or Congress passing another stimulus package could change the dynamic somewhat, but they said reducing service levels now is the prudent thing to do given all the uncertainty.
Poftak said he would be reluctant to use any federal funds to restore service levels in fiscal 2022 only to face another budget shortfall in fiscal 2023 because of the decline in ridership.
Pollack noted MBTA forecasts through June 2022 indicate ridership is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels even under the most optimistic scenarios, including widespread dissemination of a vaccine and no falloff in commuting due to telecommuting. The current forecasts estimate bus ridership will rebound the fastest under the most optimistic scenario, hitting 56 percent of pre-COVID levels by next July and 89 percent by June 2022. For subway service, the percentages are 48 percent and 88 percent. And for commuter rail, the numbers are 30 percent and 78 percent.
Poftak and Pollack struck a different tone than staff members did in earlier presentations on possible service cutbacks. In the earlier presentations, T staffers indicated the focus was on retaining service for low-income people, people of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and people in zero and low-vehicle households. Those types of riders tend to rely more on transit than office workers from the suburbs who can more easily work from home.
In the presentations, the T staffers also said that, once implemented, the ”changes will be permanent and we will build back a network that better serves the region.”
Poftak said the earlier comments by staffers had been misinterpreted. Pollack said those earlier comments were about restoring service in new ways as part of planned makeovers of the bus and commuter rail systems.
“When we were saying that some of the cuts might be permanent, we did not mean that the total investment in service would be a permanent reduction,” she said. “We meant that the actual specifics of services or bus routes or commuter rail schedules could come back differently if in fact ridership patterns had changed.”
Poftak said the T is currently projecting a $579 budget shortfall in fiscal 2022, which begins on July 1. That estimate is toward the high end of the $300 million to $600 million range the T has been forecasting.
The T expects to cover that shortfall by repurposing federal funds, cutting service, and finding internal cost savings. Federal funds typically go for long-term capital projects, but in the short term $380 million would be diverted for maintenance efforts at the T this fiscal year and next. The Legislature has also provided $140 million in additional bond funds and given its approval for the T to pay employees working on capital projects with capital, not operating, funds.
Even with the diversion, Pollack said, the T will meet its capital spending target of $1.75 billion in fiscal 2021 but will have to scale spending back in future years. She also said planning is being temporarily paused for the extension of the Green Line extension to Mystic Valley Parkway and planned station overhauls in Winchester and South Attleborough. Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester condemned the decision to postpone the station overhauls, saying the Winchester station’s condition is dangerous. “The station is in deplorable condition,” he said.
The T is offering a virtual tool allowing riders to check what’s happening on the specific bus route or commuter rail line they use. Eleven public hearings are scheduled before the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board makes its final decision on service cuts on December 7.
Here is an overview of the planned cuts:
Commuter rail – The number of trains running on weekdays is being scaled back from 505 to 430 and service will be eliminated entirely after 9 p.m. on weekdays and on weekends. The only exception is the Fairmount Line, where service will shut down on weekdays at 10 p.m. and where buses will fill in on weekends. Six little-used stations would also be closed – two in Fitchburg and four in Franklin, Plymouth, Rockport, and Haverhill.
Currently, commuter rail is serving about 16,000 riders a day, or about 8.5 percent of pre-COVID levels. Weekend boardings currently total 14,000, down from 31,000 in 2019. Week night boardings after 9 p.m. currently total 939, down from 2,029 in 2019.
T officials says once commuter rail service cuts are implemented, it will take one to two years to restore service. The changes are expected to save $8 million in the current fiscal year and $45 million in fiscal 2022.
Ferry – Ferries from Hingham, Hull, and Charlestown currently are providing 112 trips a day and serving an average of 803 riders, or seven per trip. The T is proposing that all ferry service be eliminated. The projected savings are $3.5 million in the current fiscal year and $13 million in fiscal 2022.Subway – Service is largely unchanged right now but ridership is running about 24 percent of pre-COVID levels. The T is proposing to reduce the frequency of trains by about 20 percent and eliminating service after midnight, when an average of 773 riders were traveling in September and October. The T is also proposing ending Green Line service on the E Line at Brigham Circle, requiring travelers to board buses for the remainder of the trip to Heath Street, On the Red Line, Poftak said the reduction in frequency would mean the interval between trains at peak periods would be 5 ½ minutest instead of 4 ½ minutes, and 8 ½ minutes as compared to 7 minutes off-peak. Projected savings at $3 million in fiscal 2021 and $32 million in fiscal 2022.
Bus – Overall service levels are currently unchanged even though the bus network is serving only 41 percent of the passengers it did pre-COVID. Some of the T’s 169 routes have more riders than prior to COVID while others are way down. The T is proposing to pare back service hours to 85 percent of pre-COVID levels and consolidate 14 routes, shorten five and eliminate 25. Forecasted savings are zero in the current fiscal year and $38 million in fiscal 2022.