After an outcry from riders, transit advocates, and political leaders, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority indicated Monday it may substantially scale back a host of planned cuts across the system meant to help bridge a severe budget deficit.
MBTA officials did not provide many details at a marathon board meeting, but suggested revisions that would still reduce service in areas that have seen a sharp drop in ridership during the pandemic, but avoid eliminating services outright or closing the system earlier at night.
That could spell a reprieve for late-night riders, who under the original proposal would see the bus and subway close at midnight and the commuter rail at 9 p.m., and for services that would be canceled entirely, like weekend commuter rail and MBTA ferry trips to the South Shore.
MBTA officials said they would provide details of the revised cuts next week.
During public feedback sessions in recent weeks, passengers said they were strongly opposed to complete closures and urged officials to maintain at least a reduced level of service.
“People are very tolerant to having to make changes, because I think a lot of us have had to do that anyway,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, vice chair of the MBTA’s oversight board. But “the idea of being completely cut off is really quite terrifying for a lot of people.”
Earlier Monday, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said some service decisions could even be postponed until late winter or spring. The MBTA later clarified its board would vote on the service proposal next Monday, and potentially make adjustments during next year’s budget deliberations.
The MBTA’s shifting approach to the controversial service cuts reflects the challenges in crafting a budget and projecting ridership in the coming months, as coronavirus vaccines await federal approval, Congress negotiates a stimulus package that could subsidize transit agencies, and white-collar employees consider how often they will work in an office once the pandemic ends. Poftak described it as a “dynamic and rapidly developing situation.”
Across the country, budget woes are hamstringing transit agencies, which are planning service reductions as they lobby Congress for another round of financial aid. The spring’s CARES Act helped fill deficits this year, and the MBTA’s proposed budget cuts would not take effect for several months.
But MBTA officials acknowledged Monday that its current budget outlook may yield additional money to restore services currently on the chopping block, especially if transit ridership surges next year. Current ridership is presently about 25 percent of pre-pandemic levels, though it varies across different routes and lines.
Two of the agency’s five board members, Brian Lang and Chrystal Kornegay, said they were prepared to assume a greater rebound in ridership than previously projected. They called for earmarking as much as $75 million of savings to avoid service reductions, which would save the MBTA about $100 million next fiscal year.
The proposed cuts have angered riders and politicians, who voiced their concerns at 11 public meetings over the past month. Before the MBTA’s meeting, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh blasted the agency’s plan and called on state officials to solve the issue, even if it meant raising taxes.
“The bottom line here is that these cuts are just simply wrong,” Walsh said at a news conference outside the Government Center T stop, flanked by several city councilors and advocates. “They would hurt workers. They would discourage ridership. They will slow our recovery. They create a bigger problem down the road.”
But Governor Charlie Baker, whose administration runs the MBTA, took a different approach, arguing it was fiscally prudent for the state to reduce transit service where ridership is low. The MBTA has long said its goal is to maintain the most service on parts of the system that have remained in heavier use, such as bus routes in lower-income areas and communities of color.
“I think running empty trains and buses as a general rule is bad public policy,” Baker said Monday. “I think making sure that you have a system that actually serves the people who want to ride it, when they want to ride it, and the way they want to ride it, is the right way to go.”
The debate also illustrates the murky outlook for the future of transportation. State officials have argued that ridership may remain lower than usual even if a vaccine becomes available if many white-collar workers continue to work from home. Jim Jalbert, president of C&J Bus Lines, a commuter bus company north of Boston, does not expect business to fully rebound for several years.
“We talk to our customers,” Jalbert said. “In the post-pandemic world, it is probably going to be a couple of days a week, maybe three days a week max into Boston, as compared to four or five” pre-pandemic.
Critics of the MBTA’s plan have argued the service cuts would go into effect just as many Americans are receiving a vaccine. At Walsh’s news conference, Boston City Council President Kim Janey said reducing service “would add an unnecessary strain to our economic recovery.”
While the large-scale service changes remain in limbo, a smaller tweak will take effect soon. With a rising number of workers contracting the virus, the MBTA said it would soon begin reducing rush-hour subway service slightly, adding about 30 seconds between trains, to allow more on-call workers to fill in for sick colleagues. The commuter rail could also see schedule changes as the number of infected employees continues to rise.
A report released by labor advocates on Monday also estimated the MBTA’s original plan to reduce service would result in about 800 layoffs, counting employees with the MBTA and the contractors who operate the commuter rail and ferry, as well as parking and customer service positions.
The MBTA said those numbers are inflated because they don’t take into account the prospect of retirements or voluntary job losses. MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo added that the agency is working with labor unions to “minimize the level of hardship on its workforce.”