Business

Shirley Leung

Can late-night MBTA service be saved?

Late-night MBTA riders waited in bitter cold temperatures for a train to arrive earlier this year. Late-night service is losing $14 million a year.
Kieran Kesner for the boston globe/file 2015
Late-night MBTA riders waited in bitter cold temperatures for a train to arrive earlier this year. Late-night service is losing $14 million a year.

Having late-night T service is like owning a pair of Manolo Blahniks.

Expensive, impractical, and yet aspiring and completely necessary.

But these are tough times for the MBTA, and the fiscal control board is ready to do away with frills. Yankee frugality runs deep in this fiscally conservative Baker administration, and the bottom line is that a T struggling to run trains in the winter can’t be splurging on shepherding bar-hopping millennials.

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I admit the numbers are jaw-dropping, just like a $695 pair of Manolos: Late-night is bleeding $14 million a year to ferry 13,000 riders a weekend night between 12:30 and 2 a.m. That amounts to a subsidy of $13.38 a rider.

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But here’s the thing: Public transportation is a money loser. Governments run trains and buses so people can get around whether it’s to a job, to attend school, or to go out to dinner. You shouldn’t be looking at how much money is lost, but how much the region can gain. Late-night service helps Boston proclaim itself a world-class city with a straight face — and attract the young and talented who crave being in a city that hardly sleeps. The service also offers an affordable option home for blue-collar restaurant workers who otherwise have to take expensive cabs.

You can’t do the simple math and just conclude that the numbers don’t add up on late-night service.

Mayor Marty Walsh, for one, is not happy. He wants the T to yet again extend its late-night pilot which began in March 2014. He wants to build a late-night culture in Boston and is studying whether to keep bars, restaurants, and nightclubs open past 2 a.m.

“Cutting service, I don’t think that necessarily helps the MBTA,” said Walsh. “What we’re trying to do is encourage people to take the train.”

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If anything, the mayor thinks ending the late-night schedule could hurt ridership in the earlier evening hours because more people will decide to drive. If the T wants to boost ridership, Walsh thinks it can do a better job marketing the extended hours.

At the control board meeting Wednesday, late-night service felt like it was on life support, with board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt declaring: “I’m fine with just getting rid of it.”

When I got on the phone with her on Thursday, she clarified her position: “I’m not against late-night service. I love late-night service. I am against this particular pilot. I don’t think it is working.”

Night owls, this is what counts as good news. I think everyone can agree late-night service as currently conceived is too expensive. The best we can hope for is that the control board and T brass seriously look at alternatives that make more financial sense, namely by finding private partners and raising fares.

Initially, the pilot included private-sector support from organizations such as Dunkin’ Donuts, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, and The Boston Globe. The hope was that more companies would become corporate sponsors, but that never took off.

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Yet you also have to wonder how hard the T is trying to save late-night T. Bob Luz, the president of the restaurant association, told me that his group is so happy with the program that its board agreed to double its initial investment if the pilot continued. Luz said he has yet to hear from the T on whether it could use the money.

‘I’m not against late-night service. I am against this particular pilot.’

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, MBTA control board member  

If late-night service were to continue in some form, Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s new chief administrator (a.k.a. chief bean counter), is setting the bar high on what would be acceptable. The average subsidy for regular MBTA service, including commuter rail and the paratransit program The Ride, is about $2. That’s how much late-night should cost the agency.

“If we are going to be fair,” said Shortsleeve, “I compare everything against the average.”

To rein in costs, the T will need to get creative. For starters, the bus subsidy is nearly five times the cost of the subway. So cut after-hours bus service, keep the trains, and hire Bridj, the pop-up bus service that runs 14-passenger shuttles on demand-based schedules.

Shortsleeve thinks Bridj is innovative. One idea is to let the Boston startup use the T stations as pick-up and drop-off points, and design routes.

The T is also open to the idea of partnering with Uber and Lyft. Perhaps there’s a way to integrate the ride-hailing services into the T system to make them after-hours options. Atlanta, for example has linked Uber to its transit authority app.

For its part, Lyft is in discussions in other cities about providing late-night service by offering a 50 percent discount, a program that would be underwritten by transit agencies. It’s an idea that could be brought to Boston. We shouldn’t subsidize all late-night riders, but the T could give breaks to monthly passholders.

The agency could also classify late-night as a special service and charge say, $4 a ride instead of $2.10. The T already upsells trains from South Station to Patriots games in Foxborough for $15 per round trip.

No doubt the T control board can figure something out. There is a way, but the bigger question is if there is a will.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.