What comes first: passengers or trains?
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will face a version of the old chicken-and-egg question if officials go ahead with a package of service cuts to save money while ridership remains low during the pandemic.
The T’s oversight board is scheduled to vote on the proposed reductions later this month, with the service cuts going into effect next spring and summer.
But with several vaccines on the near horizon, what’s less certain is, when will service levels come back, and what will the T use as a trigger to restore them?
Put another way, as many riders and organizations have done in recent days in comments to the T: how will the agency know when commuters are ready to return en masse to the system if parts of the system aren’t even operating or if service levels are so low that many may be discouraged from even trying?
Officials have acknowledged they don’t have an exact answer. They’ve cited different measures they would as references: ridership levels on buses and trains that are still running, traffic congestion in nearby areas, surveys of employers, and the resumption of large-scale events in the city.
MBTA general manager Steve Poftak has also suggested he expects the T will have time to ramp up service, because he expects ridership to return “incrementally” once the pandemic is over.
“It’s not kind of a binary, inflection point event where all of a sudden ridership comes back all at once,” he said in an interview with WBUR this week.
The proposed service reductions includes ending commuter rail at 9 p.m. on weekdays and entirely on weekends, closing the ferry system outright, and reducing the frequency of subway and bus trips.
And once those reductions are in place, it would likely take time for the T to reverse them. Deep within MBTA presentations about the service cuts, the agency has acknowledged that it can’t just switch back to the old levels because the agency will have laid off a number of workers, including drivers.
For example, the presentations say it could take a year to hire and train workers for buses and subways, and two years on the commuter rail; however, weekend commuter rail could be restored much quicker, the agency said. It may also take “significant time” to hire an outside contractor to run the ferry service if the current contract is scuttled.
But the recent optimistic news about vaccine development has created the possibility that the planned cuts could go into effect just as ridership would be returning. Experts increasingly think most of the general public could have access to vaccines currently in approval processes by summer.
In a letter to the MBTA’s board, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley on Friday said “cutting services without a firm plan to return offerings would dramatically impact our public transit system’s vital role in any long-term economic recovery for the Commonwealth.”
Meanwhile, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce argued that reduced service could stunt ridership in a post-pandemic era: “The MBTA’s service levels must be ready to adapt to demand for service, not drive the demand.”
Some of the proposed reductions would affect significant numbers of riders who are still using the T during the pandemic. Take weekend commuter rail, for example: Its ridership is about 45 percent of its pre-COVID levels, while weekday service is at just 13 percent. But weekend trips are on the chopping block.
Meanwhile, the US Department of Veterans Affairs’s healthcare facility in Jamaica Plain wrote to the MBTA criticizing the agency’s plan to end Green Line service at Brigham Circle rather than Heath Street, because it would cut off patients and workers who ride the Green Line to the site.
The T has said any impending cuts will be temporary, but some riders are skeptical the agency will restore service. The MBTA Advisory Board, an outside panel that represents cities and towns served by the transit system, recommends the T create a “return to service commission” that would “establish metrics to bring service levels back to pre-pandemic levels in an open and transparent way.” The commission would include riders and employers, the advisory board said.
In a statement, the MBTA said it has received public input in other ways and does not need to create a commission.
The agency added that public comment over the last month has helped “inform priorities for maintaining essential service and restoring service in the future.” Officials are scheduled to present an update on the proposal at a public meeting on Monday, with a board vote planned for Dec. 14.