By all rights, the MBTA should be dead broke, its ridership and revenue so ravaged by the pandemic that it’s cutting service and resorting to all kinds of budget maneuvers to keep going.
But in reality, the usually cash-strapped agency is flush with money: With some $1.1 billion in federal pandemic aid over the past year, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is in the rare position of expecting a surplus of tens of millions of dollars by summer.
And that’s not counting the T’s share of President-elect Joe Biden’s stimulus plan, which would include billions for public transit, if it’s passed by Congress.
Yet the T remains cautious, hedging against the possibility that pandemic trends such as remote work and telemedicine will suppress ridership — and fare revenue — for years. It’s continuing with plans to reduce service and cut other expenses, while banking most of the federal money to fortify its financial standing and long-term capital spending program for the coming years.
But with Biden signaling more aid is on the way, transit advocates argue the T should spend the federal money now, preserving the services it plans to cut.
“It would be telling about what the [Baker] administration thinks about mass transportation, if the administration doesn’t reverse all of these cuts,” said Jarred Johnson, director of the nonprofit TransitMatters. “This is the time to say, ‘Let’s use these resources. Let’s put service where it needs to be.’ ”
The T plans to reduce the frequency of subway, bus, commuter rail, and ferry service, while eliminating weekend service on some commuter lines, with the first set of cuts starting this month. However, it’s keeping more service on routes and lines that have remained more popular during the pandemic.
The T has said these cuts are short-term, and that service levels for the fiscal year that begins July 1 will be sorted out this spring.
Systemwide, ridership remains at about a quarter of pre-pandemic levels, but the rate is much higher on buses and lower on the commuter rail; there are also significant differences route by route.
Federal funding has staved off a severe budget crisis so far: The CARES Act buoyed the MBTA with more than $820 million to largely cover fare losses, and the MBTA is set to receive nearly $300 million from the COVID deal Congress passed in December.
The T has committed a small portion of that latest federal package to restoring some lost service: About $17 million will add back some bus trips and evening commuter rail service previously on the chopping block, officials said last Monday. But most will go toward other purposes, including about $180 million to the capital budget, which funds long-term projects. The remainder, as much as $100 million, will be held back in case the budget next year remains hobbled by low ridership.
Spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the MBTA is “evaluating ridership levels and revenue . . . and adjustments to service levels will continue to be made based on those factors.” Demand from riders who depend the most on public transit will also be a factor.
Pesaturo declined to say whether the MBTA would lay off drivers and operators.
“We continue to work on service planning for the spring and summer with an eye toward having the flexibility to respond to future demand,” he said. “That process will determine if we have the appropriately sized workforce.”
While the T originally cited a bleak financial picture for the service cuts, it later became clear that with the federal aid, it could afford to keep operating service near normal levels. Officials then argued their goal was to better match service to low ridership, while setting aside the savings to address future shortfalls.
Critics, including the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, have worried the reduced service could prevent people from returning to the system as the economy comes back online. Others have said that even if the MBTA can justify reducing service on parts of the system, the outright elimination of weekend commuter rail on several lines, for example, will strand the riders who depend on it.
Biden’s proposal — which must get through a Congress with slight Democratic majorities — would provide transit agencies with enough of a financial cushion to confidently run normal service throughout the pandemic, said Beth Osborne, director of the national organization Transportation for America.
“It means they can be a little more aggressive about managing their service to a high level,” she said.
Depending on how it’s structured, the Biden package could yield another half-billion dollars or more for the MBTA, enough to mitigate most of the lost fare revenue next fiscal year. But it’s unclear how the T would use that money.