MBTA officials have begun planning for possible service cuts as they stare down a mammoth budget gap in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
With ridership still well below pre-pandemic levels, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority forecasts that it could be short by $300 million to nearly $600 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2021 — depending on how quickly riders return. Federal funds from the CARES Act are covering hundreds of millions of dollars in lost fare revenue for now, but those reserves will likely expire by next summer, and the T has already acknowledged it may be forced to reduce service as a possible next step.
Officials will raise the topic Monday at a meeting of the MBTA’s governing board, according to draft presentation slides obtained by the Globe. The presentation is mostly conceptual, meant to outline principles and priorities rather than detailing which specific lines or routes may lose service.
“Basically they’re admitting that service cuts are coming," said a transportation advocate who was briefed on the presentation but asked for anonymity because the conversation was not public. “It’s just a question of the scale and the size.”
The slides suggest the T will prioritize service, perhaps even expanding it, on those routes that have had higher ridership during the pandemic or are expected to rebound more quickly. The slides also indicate the T would give priority to routes and services with higher numbers of low-income riders and people of color, and those with lower rates of car ownership, as these passengers tend to rely most on transit.
Meanwhile, the agency would be “most likely to reduce service levels” on routes and services with lower ridership and where passengers tend to have higher incomes or own cars, according to the presentation.
The goal would be to “preserve and invest in quality service ... in key areas” rather than attempting to cut service evenly across the system, according to one slide.
Of the three major modes, buses have seen the greatest portion of ridership return, while commuter rail has seen the lowest.
The T will also consider running fewer overall vehicles to save on maintenance costs as an “alternative to deeper service reductions.”
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the Monday presentation will mark “the very beginning of a process the T is using to focus its operating and capital resources on the customers who depend most on the MBTA for frequent and reliable service.”
He declined to say whether it would lead to cuts.
At its largest, the projected revenue shortfall could amount to about a third of the T’s annual operating costs. But the agency will likely rely on measures beyond just service cuts to meet the shortfall.
Officials already have said they could cover much of the gap through budget maneuvers, such as paying some employees with borrowing or diverting more federal funds toward daily operations. General manager Steve Poftak has also said agency departments will be encouraged to find new ways to either save money or increase revenue.
Transportation advocates have been calling on the state Legislature or Congress to help the transit system avoid cuts. A coronavirus stimulus proposal by US House Democrats included funding for transit, as most agencies across the country are facing similar issues to the MBTA. But Washington is deadlocked after Senate Republicans pitched a thinner relief package.
Meanwhile, lawmakers on Beacon Hill who once seemed all but certain to pass a transportation revenue bill this year have indicated they will not raise the gas tax or other fees because of the economic downturn.
The prospect of service cuts is another reminder of just how intensely the coronavirus has changed the debate around the transportation system, which just six months ago was largely focused on increasing transit service to reduce the region’s stifling congestion. But there has also been a premium on higher-frequency service throughout the pandemic, to ensure vehicles don’t get too crowded and riders have enough social distance onboard.
The changes forced by the budget crunch would be permanent, but may create a “simpler, less redundant, and more equitable system," according to the presentation.
“If and when additional resources [are] available, we will not recreate the pre-COVID system,” one slide reads.