The MBTA is slated to receive somewhere between $250 million and $300 million from the latest round of federal stimulus funding. Yet, even with plenty of money pouring in, state transportation officials are going forward with some so-called sticky service cuts — the kind that cause pain for riders and are difficult to reverse.
Under a plan ironically named “Forging Ahead,” the T will suspend 20 bus routes and reduce the frequency of others; reduce frequency by 20 percent on the Green, Orange, and Red lines, and by up to 5 percent on the Blue Line; eliminate weekend service on many commuter rail lines and run fewer weekday trips; close five commuter rail stations; and end the Charlestown-to-downtown ferry service.
Most of these service cuts will take place between January and March. While scaled back from an initial proposal, they still don’t add up. Not if you consider public transit a public good that should serve everyone in the public. Not if you think about transportation as a matter of equity, environmental stewardship, and social justice — not a privilege.
It’s true that T ridership has plummeted because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the agency expects to run a deficit approaching $600 million in the fiscal year that begins in July. But, thanks to a healthy flow of federal money into the state, there’s no deficit now, and there won’t be one in the near future. In fact, state transportation officials admit they may even have enough money to keep most services running. Instead, they are concerned about running what Governor Charlie Baker has referred to as “empty trains and buses,” which he called a “bad idea” and “bad public policy.”
However, even if you are the last person on that bus, it isn’t empty, is it? And if you’re a worker who has to get to your job, pandemic or no pandemic, why must you risk unsafe, crowded conditions because of service cuts, while others can work safely at home? The community that’s still riding those buses and subways because they have no choice is rightly asking: Why are our lives worth less than the lives of others? The Baker administration has not answered that question.
Meanwhile, the T can’t even say how much money the planned service cuts will save. The original proposed package of cuts totaled about $95 million. According to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo, the revised service-cuts package approved by the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board adds up to a smaller number that budget experts still can’t estimate. “The budget team doesn’t have an exact number because of the amount of implementation work required — depending on timelines and other choices, it is difficult to project a precise number at this time,” Pesaturo said via e-mail.
According to the T’s “Forging Ahead” proposal, “Savings from service cuts will be used to increase service frequency later, when warranted by ridership and revenue and, consistent with the timing of post-vaccine economic reopening, the return of ridership and availability of revenue to pay for additional service.” The problem, said Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of public transit advocates, is that “sticky” service cuts cannot be easily reversed without incurring additional costs. This is particularly true, said Dempsey, if you are laying off trained workers, which seems necessary to achieve any sort of substantial cost savings.
Extracting concessions from the Boston Carmen’s Union, Local 589, which represents 6,000 T bus drivers and other workers, by threatening layoffs associated with these cuts, may be the Baker administration’s real goal. (The T separately announced that some executives and workers would have to take unpaid furlough days, saving about $2.5 million.) The “Forging Ahead” proposal contains this language: “While layoffs remain on the table, the MBTA is actively working with our major unions to assess all available options for implementing service changes and achieving budget savings while positioning the MBTA to bring back service with its current trained and experienced workforce.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Baker used a crisis to gain control over the T. He did it after record snowfall shut down T service in 2015 — and, to his credit, righted the agency’s fiscal ship before the outbreak erupted. But using the threat of service cuts as a bargaining chip in the midst of a pandemic is really bad public policy — and carrying out those cuts when there’s no legitimate financial reason to do it is even worse.
This editorial has been updated to include the MBTA’s projected deficit in the next fiscal year.
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