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MBTA not alone in planning steep service cuts

Transit cuts seem likely to hit cities across the country without federal intervention.

Washington, DC's Metro is proposing to cut weekend rail service, close 19 of 91 stations, shorten hours of operation, slash bus routes by more than half, and lay off 2,400 workers starting in July to meet a $494.5 million deficit in the fiscal year.
Washington, DC's Metro is proposing to cut weekend rail service, close 19 of 91 stations, shorten hours of operation, slash bus routes by more than half, and lay off 2,400 workers starting in July to meet a $494.5 million deficit in the fiscal year.Chip Somodevilla/Getty

No weekend trains. Bus routes dropped. Transit stations closed and longer waits for the next subway trip. These are among the hits to public transit awaiting riders if public officials go forward with a roster of proposed service cuts next year.

And not just in Boston.

As big as they are in Massachusetts, service cuts looming over some of the nation’s other large transit agencies could be even more Draconian. The Washington, D.C., transit authority is considering shutting the subway system altogether on weekends, closing nearly 20 stations, and slashing bus service. In New York City, the transit operator is even considering a fare hike as it also plots radical cuts to bus, subway, and commuter rail services.

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All these agencies are staring down huge budget gaps, as the pandemic has dramatically reduced ridership, federal aid from earlier this year is nearly spent, and there isn’t any great hope yet of another stimulus package from Congress.

“This is no longer an abstract catastrophe. This is a real disaster. The budgets are out there, these are real service cuts, and they are deeper than anything we’ve ever seen in our lives,” said Ben Fried, spokesman for the national advocacy organization TransitCenter. “It’s going to wreck our biggest American cities, upend the lives of millions of people who depend on transit, and strangle our economic recovery.”

In Boston, the MBTA has proposed ending nightly bus and subway service at least a half-hour earlier, eliminating 25 bus routes and the ferry system altogether, and stopping the commuter rail at 9 p.m. with no weekend service. Although some high-ridership bus routes won’t be affected, most every other bus and subway line will run fewer vehicles over the course of a day, lengthening wait times between rides.

Planned for next year, these drastic changes have sparked a backlash from riders, advocates, and elected officials across the region; a new statewide survey released Thursday by the MassINC Polling Group found that about two-thirds of Massachusetts residents oppose the cuts, and most don’t believe the service will ever be restored.

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Similar crises are boiling among riders in New York and Washington. New York, by far the nation’s largest transit system, has said in budget documents that it could cut 40 percent of bus and subway service, and 50 percent on the Long Island and Metro-North commuter rail systems. Washington officials have proposed consolidating 60 bus routes into 41, while eliminating weekend subway service and ending it at 9 p.m. on weekdays.

The Boston, New York, and Washington proposals are not final. The MBTA’s board is expected to vote on the plan later this month.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles has already reduced bus and rail service by about 20 percent. In the San Francisco area, the regional rail system, Bay Area Rapid Transit, is planning to eliminate some weekend service in March, while the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency also expects further cuts to light rail and bus service next year.

Even transit systems that have not laid out plans say they are nearing the edge of their own fiscal cliffs. Officials in both Chicago and Philadelphia are forecasting budget gaps of more than $300 million that may force major service changes next year.

‘It’s going to wreck our biggest American cities, upend the lives of millions of people who depend on transit, and strangle our economic recovery.’

Ben Fried, TransitCenter

“The CTA faces a huge, unprecedented deficit of nearly $400 million for next year,” the Chicago Transit Authority said in a statement. “Without additional federal funding, and given the size of our projected deficit, it is very unlikely that we could address that shortfall without massive, across-the-board service reductions.”

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In Massachusetts, the MBTA is forecasting a budget gap approaching $600 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2021. Importantly, that is based on fare revenue coming back to little more than half of pre-pandemic rates by the summer of 2022. The service cuts would solve only a quarter of the gap. The T is proposing other maneuvers, such as reallocating funding for long-term projects, to make up the difference.

For now, ridership is still hovering at about a quarter of its prior rates, and is especially low on the commuter rail, where fares are highest. Moreover, ridership gains throughout the summer seemed to stall in October. But some transit advocates have questioned whether the MBTA’s forecast is underestimating how much fare revenue will return, especially if the vaccines coming out will allow many more riders to return to work.

“I just don’t understand how they plan to have T cuts coming into effect at the same time the governor is probably going to be planning a big, huge reopening strategy,” said Jarred Johnson, director of the Boston nonprofit Transit Matters.

In a statement, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said the agency is “reviewing our riders’ feedback to the proposals announced last month.”

“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,” he added.

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Local advocates have also chafed at comments from Massachusetts transportation officials who suggested they would not immediately undo the cuts even if the state received a new federal bailout package. Rather than continuing to run sparsely used services, they argue, it may make more sense to bank the money for when ridership returns. Other transit agencies have suggested they would use additional federal aid to stave off cuts.

“The other agencies seem to be fighting for their riders. The T seems to be fighting its riders,” Johnson said, adding that state officials should also seek ways to fund the system rather than waiting on federal help.

The prospect of additional federal funding is at best uncertain. A bipartisan group of moderate senators on Tuesday introduced a new stimulus bill that would reportedly include about $15 billion for transit agencies, less than half of what the industry has lobbied for. It’s also unclear if even that proposal will see much daylight in a hyper-polarized Congress, either during President Trump’s lame-duck period or after President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January.

“It’s a good start, but there needs to be more,” said Robert Puentes, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Eno Center for Transportation.

Transit policy across the country has for years focused on increasing the share of agency revenue derived from fares, Puentes said. But that strategy was poorly suited for a pandemic, he said, with the nation’s highest-ridership systems now the ones suffering the most, as passengers who can work from home are staying away.

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