Just one year ago, some 1.3 million people rode the subway, bus, ferry, or commuter rail on an average workday in Massachusetts. Today, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and the shutdown of work and everyday life as we knew it, the number of daily riders is down to 300,000. They work in hospitals, small businesses, and grocery stores. They take care of the elderly and disabled or have other jobs and commitments that don’t afford them the luxury of staying home or working remotely.
With that drastic drop in ridership, the MBTA has proposed drastic service cuts that, if approved, would be rolled out next year. “We do this with great regret,” said MBTA general manager Steve Poftak in an interview. “This is an unprecedented financial situation. . . . We are doing our best to manage through this.”
That perspective implies that the pandemic-controlled world we see today is the world we will be looking at six months or even a year from now; that people won’t be flocking back to Boston to work and play anytime soon; that there will be no new revenue to fill the gaps from their absence.
But with news of a vaccine on the verge of gaining FDA approval, it’s possible that ridership bounces back sooner than expected. And even if it doesn’t, there are other ways out of this trouble.
The T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board could hold off on the package of proposed cuts. The state Legislature could finally come through with a transportation funding package that includes a modest increase to the gas tax. And Governor Charlie Baker could sign it into law.
If our political leaders fail to act, this could one day be viewed as the moment they chose to stand by and watch the unraveling of the state’s public transportation system — instead of help it grow.
For those who believe the T’s proposed cuts represent prudent planning in the face of looming fiscal disaster, consider this: According to Poftak, the agency received $827 million in federal funding under Congress’s big stimulus bill, the CARES Act, and that money is currently being used to backfill the dramatic drop in revenue. In other words, the T is not currently in the red. The MBTA is proposing cuts based on projections of a shortfall that could run as high as $575 million for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2021. Poftak acknowledged that, but said the T is trying to set aside “any money we can” to offset projected losses.
Here’s what that means: The subway system would shut down at midnight, and overall there would be a 20 percent cut in frequency of service starting sometime in the new year. Bus service would stop at midnight, too, and more than half of current bus routes would see a reduction in frequency of between 20 and 30 percent. The current schedule of 505 daily commuter rail runs would be reduced to 435. Rail service would end at 9 p.m., and there would be no weekend service. Ferry service would be completely eliminated.
These service cuts would also lead to reductions in the MBTA workforce, no small thing during an economic downturn.
Public transit advocates argue that a pandemic is a short-term crisis that should not dictate long-term policy. “It’s not fair to the public, it’s not good for the economy, and it’s not good for private sector development,” said James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation. The Baker administration has encouraged transit-oriented development, which is pitched around access to the T and commuter rail.
Proposed service cuts “put all those investments on the line,” said Aloisi. He added, “Once you start taking away service, it’s very hard to bring it back.”
What about the timing of the cuts? Given the promise of vaccines that could be available at least by the beginning of next year, “It’s almost as if we’re planning for last March and April, instead of next March and April,” said Aloisi.
But, what if projections are right, and the T is looking at a huge deficit come July 1? If they had the will, lawmakers could inoculate the transit system from disaster by raising the gas tax, sparing the public the service cuts that could discourage ridership and transit-oriented development over the long term.
Last March — right before the lockdown — the House of Representatives passed legislation that would have invested about $600 million per year in the state’s roads, bridges, and trains, to be funded partly by a boost of 5 cents per gallon to the gas tax. (Baker opposed the hike.) In July, the Senate voted on a transportation bond bill but avoided taking up more sweeping legislation. This month, the Senate adopted an amendment from state Senator Joseph Boncore of Winthrop — who chairs the transportation committee — which would establish a higher fee structure for transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.
In an interview, Boncore called the proposed MBTA cuts “draconian” but said the Senate has decided the time is not right to raise the gas tax. Now may be the perfect time to raise the gas tax, though, with fuel prices low and people traveling less. And if lawmakers refuse to act, they will be giving their tacit approval to the deep cuts at the T.
The Fiscal and Management Control Board is expected to vote on the proposed service cuts on Dec. 7. The vote is about more than pandemic-related woes. It’s about the future of public transportation. Beacon Hill needs to understand that too. It’s time for the governor and the Legislature to lift their gaze from the immediate crisis and do what’s right for equitable, clean transit for the long haul.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.