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As service cuts take effect, MBTA won’t detail the savings

Critics say it’s rewriting history, pressing ahead with cutbacks justified by a budget crisis that no longer exists

The commuter rail station in Plymouth.
The commuter rail station in Plymouth.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

When the MBTA first broached the topic of service cuts last summer, officials suggested they had little choice, given the collapse of revenue during the coronavirus pandemic. But with the first set of cuts now in effect, the agency won’t say how much savings they will yield.

The cutbacks, including the elimination of weekend service on certain commuter rail lines and the ferry network, as well as running trains and buses less frequently, will save money, MBTA officials say. But they have declined to be more specific, despite widespread political opposition to the service cuts.

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It’s a noteworthy development, because the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority originally pointed to budget troubles caused by lower fare collections when it began planning service reductions. The cuts have less obvious justification if they do not generate significant savings, especially considering the influx of cash Congress provided in December’s COVID-19 relief package.

“Whatever amount of savings they get is just going to look minuscule compared to the $250 million they got from the feds,” said Jarred Johnson, director of the local group Transit Matters.

The MBTA says it’s difficult to determine the savings because the costs of given trips aren’t easily quantified. They instead rely on a range of factors, such as labor costs associated with operating the intact service.

Until early December, however, the T at least offered an estimate, suggesting that a previous slate of proposed cuts would have reduced costs by up to $14 million by July and another $128 million by summer 2022.

But in December, the MBTA scaled back the cuts while planning to adopt some on a quicker timeframe. Since then, the T has not released a new estimate, which it said takes time to develop because it must first complete a complex scheduling process.

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The MBTA, though, has offered a savings estimate for one of the cuts: of weekend commuter rail. The original plan, to eliminate all weekend service, would have saved about $15 million over a year, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said. Officials eventually decided on a reduced level of service on the most crucial routes: the Providence, Worcester, Newburyport/Rockport, Fairmount, and Middleborough/Lakeville lines. That would save about $7 million over a full year, officials estimate.

Other parts of the transit system are due for cuts in the coming weeks, including reduced frequencies on much of the subway and bus network.

The MBTA has said that the cuts are tied to ridership, with service remaining more stable on routes that have been busier during the pandemic, or that serve predominantly low-income riders and passengers of color and connect areas where people are less likely to own cars.

Transit advocates agree it may make sense to reduce some service while systemwide ridership is still far below pre-pandemic levels. But they have sharply criticized the moves to eliminate some routes, such as commuter lines that were still transporting thousands of riders on weekends, without offering a limited level of service.

“To my mind, if you’re on a bus or a train in the middle of a global pandemic, you really need to be on that trip,” said Brian Kane, director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents cities and towns with T service.

Officials have described the service reductions as “short-term” and promised to revisit the cuts during budget discussions this spring. That suggests some of the reductions could be reversed as soon as summer, but the MBTA has not given clear guidance on when or how service might return to normal. It has also pledged to steer at least $17 million of the recent federal aid toward restoring service but has not provided details.

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The uncertainties reflect the MBTA’s mixed messaging about the cuts. While most other US transit systems have pleaded for federal money to maintain service during the pandemic, the MBTA has moved forward with cuts while also calling for federal assistance.

In recent months, the T has said that its primary goal was to make sure transit service reflected the demand. Any savings can be banked and applied to the next fiscal year, adding to a large surplus that could help bridge future budget gaps and increase service as more people return to the system.

“It’s important to remember that the [service change] process has always been based on matching service levels with demand, and being prepared for an eventual uptick in ridership,” said David Panagore, the MBTA’s chief administrative officer.

But critics say that argument is revisionist history. The MBTA began pressing for service cuts, they said, by pointing to a budget crisis that no longer exists, and throughout the fall described the plan as a “last resort.”

“The feds gave them an out,” said Johnson, the Transit Matters director. “So it’s not a last resort. It’s an intentional choice now.”

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