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MBTA service cuts appear inevitable, regardless of a federal bailout

Transit officials say that many planned widespread reductions may happen even if Congress sends more aid because ridership is so low

A sign encouraging MBTA riders to socially distance is secured to a beam at the South Station commuter rail station.
A sign encouraging MBTA riders to socially distance is secured to a beam at the South Station commuter rail station.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

The planned service reductions the MBTA announced last week are so extensive that the only hope to stave them off may be a big government bailout.

Or, maybe not.

Top transit officials have indicated that even if they were to receive a heap of federal aid, they may still move forward with many of the impending cuts.

In the eyes of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the issue isn’t just money. Yes, the T is facing a shortfall of up to $575 million, prompting the cuts. But the agency is as concerned about the cause of that shortfall: the steep drop in ridership, which is down 75 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels across the system, and closer to 90 percent on the commuter rail and ferry systems.

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Dedicating any influx of new money to propping up those services without increasing ridership — and therefore fare revenue — would just cause the same funding issues to resurface once the emergency funding runs out, officials said.

That’s why Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack recently suggested that even if President-elect Joe Biden and a new Congress agree next year on an aid package for public transit systems, the T might instead bank the money for the post-pandemic period instead of using it to keep service running at current levels.

“The question is, if you got the federal package this spring but were still seeing 25 or 30 percent of the pre-COVID ridership," Pollack said last Monday, "whether it would make sense to immediately add service or whether it would make sense to hold onto those federal dollars until we need it for more ridership.”

Set for a final vote in December, the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board is proposing to eliminate 25 low-ridership bus routes, reduce service frequencies across the system, close the system early each night, end weekend commuter rail trips, shorten some trips, and shutter the ferry system.

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These would put the subway at about 70 percent normal service, and the commuter rail at 65 percent. The bus system would be hit less, as it has maintained a higher percentage of its riders — about 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Moving forward, there is no obvious answer for the T if Congress does provide additional aid, said Matthew Rosenbloom-Jones, an experienced transit scheduler who most recently worked on Long Island, N.Y. It depends on officials' priorities.

“It’s more of a political decision. How do you see the T’s role in the community?" he said. "Do you see the T as being more important to provide service in the here and now, or to help with the recovery?”

This is, at least for now, a hypothetical debate. No package of outside money has been approved to help the MBTA and other transit systems, either from Congress or the State House.

General Manager Steve Poftak said the MBTA would use any new funding to invest in parts of the system that remain busy or are a priority during the pandemic because they serve riders who rely on transit, especially in low-income areas and communities of color.

"Using limited resources to operate nearly empty trains, ferries, and buses is not a responsible use of the funding provided by riders, communities, and taxpayers and does not help support the transportation needs of our region,” Poftak said. "Saving resources now by reducing underutilized, non-essential services will help ensure the MBTA has the resources to bring back service in a sustainable and prudent manner in response to ridership demands after the pandemic has faded.”

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Some advocates and officials, however, have noted that those still riding nearly empty services may need them the most. For example, MBTA control board vice chair Monica Tibbits-Nutt questioned the decision to cut a T program that subsidizes bus services in the suburbs, noting it could end up affecting senior citizens, students, and non-English speakers who do not have many transit options.

“I just want to make sure we’re not stranding those people, because in the majority of those communities they have no other option at all," Tibbits-Nutt said at the T board meeting Monday.

Transit advocates also worry that reducing service now will make it difficult to bring it back once the crisis ends.

“I don’t think it’s something you could toggle down or toggle up real easily,” said state Representative Jonathan Hecht of Watertown, who unsuccessfully sought $308 million in additional funding for the T during the House of Representatives' debate on a new state budget this week.

For example, cutting service so drastically will inevitably lead to job losses of drivers and other personnel. It’s not such a simple matter of recalling the workers once the money — and ridership — returns. MBTA documents indicate that it could take a year or two to hire and train enough drivers to bring service levels back to pre-pandemic levels.

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In the meantime, running limited service as commuters return to their workplaces post-pandemic may prove too frustrating for some, prompting them to drive instead — exacerbating the auto congestion and pollution that troubled the region before the coronavirus.

Indeed, one of the metrics the T is using to determine where to cut service is the rate of car ownership, suggesting officials feel most comfortable reducing service if riders have the option to drive instead.

The MBTA also may struggle to gauge post-pandemic demand for services that have been reduced, said Mela Miles, director of transit programs at the Roxbury nonprofit Alternatives for Community and Environment. How would the T know if riders want weekend commuter rail, for example, if there is no commuter rail running on weekends?

“You are in a catch-22,” Miles said.

But it’s not clear commuters would rush back quickly once the pandemic is over. The MBTA does not expect ridership to return to pre-COVID levels by mid-2022.

“Say a vaccine comes out and everybody’s vaccinated by June 1. You’re probably not going to see pre-COVID ridership come back overnight,” Rosenbloom-Jones, the transportation planner, said. “It’s probably going to take one or two years, and that’s not necessarily due to COVID so much as the economic problems post-COVID or new trends people are going to stick with for a while.”


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.