Across the region, officials and passengers seek to put brakes on MBTA service cuts

Officials, including state Senator Patrick O'Connor (fourth from right), participated in a press conference in front of the Hingham Terminal to promote their effort to keep the commuter ferries and trains running. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The MBTA’s proposed budget cuts have sparked an outcry from passengers and political leaders who say scaling back public transit will have both immediate and longer-term ramifications, hindering frontline workers while undercutting the region’s post-pandemic economic gains.

“I think the big problem is that these cuts are going to hurt the recovery as we think about moving forward," said Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “And right now, these cuts are going to hurt the essential and frontline workers.” The two issues, he said, are of “equal” concern.

Walsh is part of a chorus of opposition to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s cash-saving plan that has emerged in recent days. Transit officials say the cutbacks are necessary to balance a budget thrown into deficit by collapsing revenue and are designed to minimize disruptions to riders on the busiest parts of the system.

But critics have said the cuts are shortsighted. At a rally near Mission Hill last week, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley decried the federal and state governments for “failing” T riders, while Hull town manager Philip Lemnios has called on the agency to raise fares rather than eliminate ferry service.

“I think they ought to be doing everything they can to make sure people can move in and around the Boston area, because that’s their primary function,” Lemnios said.

The MBTA’s proposal, unveiled last week, would reduce bus and train frequencies across most of the system, while ending service on the commuter rail after 9 p.m., eliminating weekend commuter rail trips, shuttering the ferry system, and shortening certain routes. The cuts would take effect next year, mostly between spring and summer.

The MBTA stressed that the plan is not final and noted that the agency is holding more than a dozen hearings about the reductions before its oversight board votes on the plan in December.

“The MBTA is carrying out a comprehensive outreach process as it wants public feedback and will take it seriously,” general manager Steve Poftak said in a statement.

Under the proposal, officials expect to save about $128 million next fiscal year, marking one of several measures to plug a budget gap that could exceed $575 million as the agency reels from a massive decline in fare revenue during the pandemic.

Transit agencies and advocates have called on Congress to help stave off cuts, but negotiations on a coronavirus relief bill have stalled.

Walsh suggested Massachusetts lawmakers dip into the state’s rainy day fund to avoid some cuts. The House of Representatives last week passed a budget plan for the ongoing fiscal year that did not increase MBTA funding in order to close its deficit. The Senate budget up for debate this week does not either, though a proposed amendment would increase MBTA funding by about $300 million.

Although MBTA officials have described the cuts as a “last resort,” they have also said they may move forward with many of the changes even if a federal or state funding package is approved. The cuts are justified in part by the low number of riders using most of the system, they said.

But those riders depend on the system and may struggle to get around if service is cut, said Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan.

“Some work late shifts or early morning shifts,” Sullivan said. The city’s commuter rail stations "are not being as used as much during the pandemic, I recognize that, but there are going to be many workers who can’t find reliable transit to get into their jobs.”

Willie Faye Clay, 63, lives near the Heath Street Green Line stop at the border of Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill. The MBTA’s plan to end the Green Line five stops earlier at Brigham Circle, saving $2 million, will make it more difficult to run errands, she said.

“It’s not that many stops from Brigham Circle to Heath Street,” said Clay, who uses a wheelchair and says it’s harder to take the bus. “I think they should consider the impact of how it would affect people.”

Meanwhile, the timing of the cuts could backfire if a coronavirus vaccine becomes widely available and commuters begin returning to work in the spring or summer.

While work and travel habits may well be different in the pandemic’s aftermath, the end of the public health crisis would undoubtedly increase daily trips into and around Boston. Reduced transit service could also exacerbate Boston traffic, further hampering the economy and creating more fuel emissions.

“I’m already looking into it, because the writing is on the wall, but I’m looking into buying a car and paying for parking,” said Brenda Connors, who lives in Hull and has taken the ferry to her job as a dental assistant in Boston throughout the pandemic.

MBTA officials have said the eliminated services can resume as ridership and fare revenue rebound, but the agency’s own presentation materials say it could take up to two years to hire and train drivers to operate the restored trips. And officials have so far struggled to clearly explain how they’ll know it’s time to bring back closed services except by monitoring ridership on other parts of the system and public feedback over time.

“I wish there was an easier answer, so that we can say ‘if you do A, B, and C, we will be in a position where we will be bringing that particular route back,'" MBTA deputy general manager Jeff Gonneville said at a virtual public meeting last week, responding to a question from a rider. “Admittedly, this is something we are hearing a fair amount."

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