That glow at the end of the pandemic tunnel isn’t bright enough to prevent the MBTA from cutting more transit services this weekend.
Will riders still be there when those services return — if those buses and trains return at all?
The state’s public transit system has taken a beating since the pandemic began just over a year ago, with ridership plummeting by at least two-thirds as workers who could stay at home have. That has blown an even-bigger-than-usual hole in the system’s finances.
To save money, the MBTA cut some ferry services and suspended weekend service altogether on seven commuter rail lines in January. On Sunday, services on the Red, Orange and Green Lines will be reduced by about 20 percent, and a bunch of bus routes will be suspended or consolidated (Some still-busy buses will see increases).
“Running empty trains and buses, as a general rule, is bad public policy,” Governor Charlie Baker said in December.
But transit advocates point out that those trains and buses aren’t truly empty. They remain vital to those for whom work at home is not an option — unsung but essential folks who work in hospitals and restaurants and grocery stores — and whose lives are already hard enough without having to find other ways to get to their jobs.
“People are not out there joyriding the MBTA right now,” said Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, which advocates for better transit services. “These are essential workers and now we’re making their lives harder, after a year of saying they’re our heroes.”
It’s hard to see how the meager savings from cutting services — $21 million this fiscal year, out of a $2.3 billion budget — justifies that. Especially since the transit system is about to get a third big infusion of cash — likely close to $900 million, Dempsey said — in federal relief funds from the American Rescue Plan.
Why not use that money to retain services for those who still need them? Because the hole is way deeper than that, said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak: The system he runs faces a structural budget deficit of $400 million per year for the next five years.
“It’s a difficult message for people to hear, but what we’re trying to do is set the MBTA up so that it’s sustainable in the long run,” Poftak said. “If we have to bring back service in certain places, we certainly will. That is something we have pledged to our customers.”
But taking services offline, even temporarily, does damage the MBTA isn’t acknowledging, advocates say. If public transit is seen as unreliable, fewer people will rely on it. Make it inconvenient for weekend workers, for example, and they’ll find other ways to get to work, some switching permanently. Fewer T riders means yet more cuts, which means yet fewer T riders, and on it goes.
“It leads to a death spiral,” said Jarred Johnson, executive director of Boston advocacy group TransitMatters. “In five years or so, traffic will be so bad that we will be playing catch-up again.”
Public transit is central to who we are going to be on the other side of this pandemic. Our future depends on our cities bouncing back, on denser housing, on transit-oriented development. We can’t have an economic recovery, or meaningful climate policy, without stellar public transportation. Cutting services sends a signal to businesses and developers that they might be better off in locations with plenty of parking, outside Boston and other hubs. Is that what we want?
With more of us working at home, ridership might not recover to 2019 levels, even after life gets back to normal. Which means this death-spiral dilemma isn’t going anywhere.
MBTA chief Poftak rightly points out that some of this is beyond anyone’s control, including his. But here is what his MBTA can control: Sending a message that it will be there for this state’s workers, no matter how few of them are forced to ride the rails now — and how many return when this crisis is finally over.
Leaving any of them stranded now isn’t the way.