It was one of state Representative Martin J. Walsh’s big campaign promises to constituents championing a 24-hour city: If elected, he said, he would push for late-night MBTA service, garnering a mix of state funding and partnerships with private organizations to make the extended hours a reality.
Now, these advocates are counting on a Mayor Walsh to back up the words of candidate Walsh.
His victory could accelerate the momentum for what has sometimes seemed a pie-in-the-sky request for late service.
State legislators in July passed a transportation finance law that included requiring the T to develop a plan to extend weekend hours; the T’s Rider Oversight Committee is considering ways to encourage more students to buy discounted passes, with the money helping to fund the after-hours service; and campus associations are surveying students in an attempt to document their desire for late T service.
Transportation specialists are also examining the experience of the Night Owl, the T’s short-lived experiment in late-night bus service — it fizzled in 2005 — and assessing how it could be revived with public-private partnerships helping to foot the bill.
Advocates are hoping that the support of a mayor wholly on board with the project could make the difference between failure and success.
“If Marty is suggesting that this is an important priority to him,” said City Councilor Mike Ross, who championed the Night Owl in 2000 and made the service a major part of his bid for mayor this year, “partners would see this as an important priority to them, too.”
In response to a Boston Globe survey of mayoral candidates on transportation issues in September, Walsh said that he was a “strong proponent” of extending T hours later into the night.
“The most realistic funding approach is probably a mix of state aid and creative public-private partnerships here in the city,” Walsh wrote in his response. “Having represented Boston for 16 years on Beacon Hill, I am the candidate best positioned to win the necessary support from the Legislature. Beyond that, I would work with private institutions, especially universities whose students are likely to be major users, to fully fund the extended service.”
In a 2009 internal MBTA report outlining the Night Owl and the potential success of its revival, experts estimated that a revived “rubber rail” service — buses to replace subway trains for a few hours on Friday and Saturday nights — would cost $1.84 million to $2.11 million per year, with most of the money going toward overtime wages and associated benefits.
Kimberly Vermeer, president of Urban Habitat Initiatives, a consulting firm focused on quality-of-life issues, said politicians increasingly have begun to recognize that the money to finance the service would not necessarily have to come from state coffers.
There’s a greater understanding now than 10 years ago, she said, that a partnership with private organizations is at least part of the answer. Transportation advocates have said that the popularity of real-time transit tracking mobile apps may increase the popularity of late-night service.
That focus on public-private partnerships, she said, has made her and other transportation advocates hopeful that Walsh may be willing to tackle the issue.
“I’m optimistic that the new mayor is going to be more willing to raise it as an important issue,” Vermeer said.
Steven A. Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, has been a big advocate of the service. Now, he said, he believes the T — and MBTA general manager Beverly A. Scott — may be more amenable to pursuing the idea.
“I think she would be supportive of something like this,” said Tolman.
Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University and director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, said demand for late-night public transportation may be less than what the clamor on the campaign trail suggested. Still, he said, T officials should find a way to experiment and see what might be most cost-effective and useful for riders.
“That’s the beauty of buses — you can temporarily run these things and see what happens, and you don’t have to sink money into infrastructure,” Glaeser said. “I’m a proponent of experimenting with it and seeing what happens. There’s absolutely a space for doing that.”
Still, the calls for late-night service echo the genesis of the Night Owl, a bus service that the MBTA introduced in 2001 from 1 to 2:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday mornings.
In 1999, state legislators ordered the T to develop a pilot program to experiment with late-night service, insisting it was long overdue. But reluctant T officials dragged their feet, with the T’s general manager saying the service would be impractical and exorbitant.
The T’s halfhearted approach drew a hand-slapping from legislators. A rally brought politicians, college students, and labor leaders to City Hall Plaza, where they demanded transportation to accommodate late-shift workers and prevent revelers from driving after drinking.
In September 2001, the service was initiated. At its start, the Night Owl buses traced the routes of the Red, Orange, Green, and Blue lines and ran along some of the T’s most popular bus routes.
According to ridership surveys done by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, about 1,580 people rode the buses on an average night in 2002. That number decreased to less than 700 in 2005, which some transportation officials at the time said was evidence the students seeking late-night transportation were hopping into taxis as the novelty of the bus service wore off.
However, other ridership estimates from the time between 2001 and 2005 put ridership numbers significantly higher.
The ridership was not enough to support the cost of the program — estimated to be $1.4 million per year in 2004 — and the program was canceled in 2005.
Some in the transportation community have grumbled that Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has been averse to policies that encourage late-night revelry, did not use much of his political capital to foster the service’s success or prevent it from shutting down.
But a new mayor may find the calls for expanded service difficult to ignore.
Ross, who ran against Walsh in the mayoral primary, said that if Walsh had not been convinced of the importance of late-night service before this year, he would certainly have heard the outcry that emerged during his campaigning in the disparate neighborhoods of Boston.
“This is what people have been saying for the last six months to all of us,” Ross said. “In certain segments of society, it’s all you hear.”Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story had incorrect information about Steven A. Tolman. Tolman is the Massachusetts AFL-CIO president. Warren E. Tolman is running for Massachusetts attorney general.