The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will curtail service next year after the agency’s oversight board finalized a plan Monday to reduce subway frequencies and eliminate weekend commuter rail trains on several lines in response to low ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The package, approved 3-2 by the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, is more limited in scope than a plan the agency had presented in November that frustrated advocates and political leaders, but still represents a considerable reduction in service.
The MBTA described the budget cuts as a short- to medium-term measure to take advantage of unprecedented declines in ridership, with most changes taking effect between January and March. But with ridership forecasts murky at best, officials said they have not developed plans for service levels during the fiscal year that begins in July, when coronavirus vaccines may be widely available.
Those plans will be sorted out during the agency’s budget discussions in the coming months and could result in either further cuts or the restoration of some service, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said.
“We want to see what we learn over the next few months,” Poftak told reporters Monday, citing uncertainty on a range of issues, from vaccine distribution to future work-from-home habits and the prospect of federal stimulus aid to transit agencies. “I don’t know that they’re going to resolve themselves definitively, but we will have a lot more information in February and March than we do right now.”
The final set of cuts would:
⋅ Reduce subway service by 20 percent on the Green, Red, and Orange lines, while reducing it by up to 5 percent on the Blue Line, which has maintained a higher rate of ridership during the pandemic.
⋅ End weeknight commuter rail service as early as 9 p.m.
⋅ Eliminate weekend service on many commuter rail lines. The following lines would still have limited weekend service: Worcester, Providence, Newburyport/Rockport, Fairmount, and Middleborough.
⋅ Maintain only a limited amount of weekday Hingham/Hull ferry service, and close the Charlestown ferry.
⋅ Run fewer weekday trips on the commuter rail and on most bus routes.
⋅ Close five little-used commuter rail stations.
With systemwide ridership still at about one-quarter of prepandemic levels, the MBTA had been preparing throughout the fall to scale back service. The collapse in ridership since March has caused a budget crisis, although the shortfall has been covered by hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal CARES Act.
Throughout the service cut process, MBTA officials said they were giving priority to the parts of the system — especially bus routes — that maintained higher ridership during the pandemic and serve areas that rely more on public transit, such as low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and places with lower rates of car ownership.
But during a monthlong public hearing process about the original plan, elected officials and transit advocates argued that the arrival of a vaccine could spur a quick return of ridership soon after the cuts go into effect, and that low-ridership services slated for the largest reductions serve many people with limited travel options.
“We are talking about people, not numbers,” Jarred Johnson, director of the advocacy group TransitMatters, said Monday. “Low ridership doesn’t equal low importance. There are folks in the medical field and other essential industries who depend on night and weekend service.”
Faced with that opposition, the MBTA withdrew some aspects of its initial proposal, which would have eliminated all ferry and weekend commuter rail trips and ended bus and subway service at midnight. The new plan also maintains a handful of bus routes that were targeted for elimination, and will keep the Cedar Park commuter rail station in Melrose and the last leg of the Green Line’s E branch open.
Brian Kane, who as director of the MBTA Advisory Board represents cities and towns served by the transit system, said the new plan is “certainly preferable to what was originally proposed.”
“One definition of a good compromise is nobody is happy,” he said. “We’re not happy, but we’re happier than with the original proposal. I think the T listened, and the ground moved quite a bit.”
Other advocacy groups were more frustrated by Monday’s decision. Staci Rubin of the Conservation Law Foundation said even less aggressive cuts will “upend the lives of thousands of people, set the state back in reaching our climate goals, and hinder economic recovery after the pandemic.”
Before the board met, US Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Stephen Lynch blasted the cuts at an event held by labor advocates, arguing Congress is likely to provide more money to help transit systems and ease the MBTA’s budget crisis.
“I call on the MBTA to reject these unjust proposed cuts, and not allow this pandemic to dictate its long-term policy,” Pressley said.
Although the MBTA has seen revenue crater, officials have also acknowledged they may have enough money to keep most service operating. They said they are mostly trying to better match the number of trains and buses with ridership demand and use the savings to bolster service when ridership returns to normal.
“The service adjustments have been made in order to . . . take advantage of currently low, and in some cases declining, ridership levels, and thereby maximizing the amount of savings so the money can be reinvested in the MBTA when it is appropriate to do so,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said.
During the meeting, the MBTA board wondered whether the agency could run some commuter rail service after 9 p.m. to serve the less than 1,000 riders who currently take those trips. But Pollack said she was not convinced many essential workers use that service. Board members settled on a plan to revisit the idea in the winter and possibly consider adding evening commuter buses instead.
The MBTA has yet to determine how much savings the cuts will yield because it is unclear how they will be implemented. For example, laying off drivers and train operators may save more money but make it more difficult to restore service quickly as ridership rebounds.
The agency will also be required to complete environmental and social equity approval processes before the changes are finalized.
The final vote was 3-2, though disagreements on the MBTA board appeared to be more about amendments that arose during discussions than the service cuts themselves. After a lengthy debate, the board banned fare increases on the bus or subway until prepandemic service levels are restored.
The board also agreed to revisit the cuts in March and make changes if needed, after MBTA vice chair Monica Tibbits-Nutt argued that the public will not trust the agency’s commitment to restoring service as ridership returns.