By the time the MBTA’s Night Owl bus service sputtered to a close nine years ago, it averaged just 700 riders per night.
For this go-round of late-night service, local leaders agreed Thursday, T riders will have to do much, much better.
“Spread the word now, because a program like this happened a few years ago and we didn’t have the ridership we need,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said at a press conference Thursday announcing the March 28 debut of a one-year pilot for T’s latest iteration of late-night service.
“Use it or lose it” was the theme of the event outside Kendall Station in Cambridge, where officials revealed that Dunkin’ Donuts, the Red Sox, and Suffolk Construction Co. are providing financial support to the late-night experiment.
The corporate sponsors — which also include the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, the Future Boston Alliance, streetwear retailer Karmaloop, and The Boston Globe — will provide about $1.5 million toward the $16 to $17 million cost of keeping the subway system, the 15 most popular bus routes, and The Ride service for people with disabilities running for two extra hours on Friday and Saturday nights.
Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey said he was pleased by the response of sponsors and hoped more would come forward.
“I think we were happy just to get one, because this is the first time we’ve ever done it before,” Davey said. “By the way,” he added, “any other sponsors, there’s still time to get in, for sure!”
There is little expectation fares will cover remaining costs of service, but transportation officials hope ridership will be high enough to justify the program’s continuation after the pilot period ends next March.
To that end, the Future Boston Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for a more vibrant city, will throw parties near T stops to encourage late-night ridership and has started a crowd-funding campaign to raise $30,000 to help fund the service. (Those who donate $50 receive a T-shirt reading “I Ride All Night.”)
T officials have not publicized what ridership benchmarks they would consider a success, but they say they are looking for significantly more riders than used the bus-only Night Owl. The officials are hoping that riders will feel more comfortable using familiar subway trains and that smart phone apps and countdown clocks will put those waiting for late-night trains at ease.
But cellphones also provide unprecedented ease for hailing a taxi, and the success of the T’s one-year pilot is far from assured.
At the Kendall Square press conference, officials predicted the service would meet the needs of blue-collar workers struggling to get home from late shifts, workaholic techies burning the midnight oil, and merry-but-not-too-merry revelers enjoying Boston’s burgeoning nightlife scene.
Tom Hopcroft, chief executive of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, painted a vivid picture of how he expects the new transportation options to encourage innovation: Without the worry of catching the last train just after midnight, he said, entrepreneurs can peck away at their latest projects late into the night, and dinner meetings with potential investors can snowball into late-night brainstorming over cocktails.
“Today’s announcement is much more than extended hours,” Hopcroft said. “It represents an opportunity to extend their hours of research to change lives and really invent the future right here in Massachusetts.”
Liliana Ospina of Roslindale, who works at Boston Convention Center and is a member of the Unite Here Local 26, pays $35 to get to work by cab. Now, she said, she and other hospitality workers will have more affordable choices.
“Many of us spend hundreds of dollars per year taking taxis to get to work,” Ospina said. “Now we can take more money home to our families.”
Bob Luz — president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, an advocacy organization for the state’s food and beverage industry — said it is not just late-shift workers themselves who will be freed from the burden of expensive cab rides. Many bar and restaurant owners, he said, pay for employees’ cab fares, in order to keep their staff.
“In a lot of cases, quite honestly, it was the employers who had to reach into their pockets to pay the cab fares,” Luz said.
Luz declined to say how much money the organization had provided to the T as one of the sponsors of the late-night service, but said it was he believes that the group’s 500 to 600 member businesses in the MBTA service area will benefit.
“It’s a very significant sponsorship deal, and we’re a not-for-profit agency, so we dipped into our rainy day fund,” Luz said. “We felt very strongly that this was something we needed to show support for.”