T targets white, wealthier riders with service cuts

Officials outline possible cuts in commuter rail, ferry

THE MBTA moved cautiously on Monday toward embracing a framework for making budget-balancing service cuts that will fall disproportionately on white, wealthier riders who have more transportation options.

Facing a budget shortfall ranging from $300 million to $600 million, T officials won backing from the Fiscal and Management Control Board on a plan to retain or improve services that cater to low-income, minority riders who either don’t have cars or limited access to them. T officials say many of those riders have continued to ride the T during the pandemic and are more likely to return when the danger subsides.

Under the T’s current plan, cuts would be focused on services with low ridership or those that cater to higher-income white riders, even if those services had high ridership prior to the pandemic.

T officials are still talking hypotheticals – the current timeline calls for decisions on service cuts to be finalized in December – but it seemed clear from the discussion that ferry and commuter rail services could come in for some of the heaviest cuts.

Kat Benesh, the T’s chief of operations strategy, policy, and oversight gave as an example the ferry service to Hingham and Hull, which she described as having “higher ridership propensity.” She said that service could be reduced or eliminated because many of the ferry’s riders could drive to the Greenbush commuter rail line and get to Boston that way. She said surveys indicate the ferry’s riders are 4 percent low income, 2 percent minority, and one-third come from households with either one or no cars.

But such discussions can get complicated quickly because the Greeenbush commuter rail line may see cuts as well. Benesh didn’t present any demographics on the riders of various commuter rail lines, but noted that T customer surveys from 2017 indicate only 14 percent of the households served by the Greenbush line have fewer than .5 cars per person.

Benesh’s presentation indicated she and other T officials may dial back service on parts of commuter rail lines that are farther out from Boston while retaining service at “Gateway City or urban rail-type stations closer to Boston.”

She also said a bus route with low ridership might be scrapped, with the expectations that that bus’s riders would walk to another nearby bus line.

“While starting from perspective of preserving essential service, we can’t ignore trade-offs,” said Benesh’s presentation. “If we want to preserve or improve parts of the system, it will make something worse for someone.”

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair of the control board, said many of the service cuts may not take place until the middle of next year, when the situation with COVID-19 may be easing. She said she was worried the service cuts, if they coincide with the reopening of more businesses, could bring congestion back to the state’s roads.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Joseph Aiello, the chair of the control board, said the T should experiment with reduced pricing on some commuter rail lines to see if lower prices could influence some riders to get back on commuter rail, where ridership currently is at 10 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said reduced pricing may have limited impact at a time when COVID-19 is keeping many people working at home and in no need of transportation. She urged T staffers to consider pricing experiments, but cautioned that they also need to prepare for service cuts that could reduce the T’s costs.

“It’s not either or,” she said. “We need to do both.”