The MBTA is backtracking on planned budget cuts in the face of criticism from the state’s congressional delegation over the agency’s decision to reduce service despite recently receiving more than $1 billion in federal pandemic relief.
The T has curtailed plans to lay off 40 commuter rail conductors and is accelerating plans to increase the service it just reduced this winter. In a letter to Representative Stephen Lynch, General Manager Steve Poftak said the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will “commit to increasing service levels as quickly as possible on the bus and subway.”
Poftak did not specify where or when service may increase, or at what levels. But in an interview, he said the plan marks a significant change in approach for an agency that previously expected to incrementally add more service over the course of summer and fall, while saving some of the federal funds to address budget shortfalls several years from now.
“We are looking at ways to increase service levels on bus and rail as quickly as possible,” Poftak said Friday. “Our approach evolved a bit, [from] how do we address a long-term structural deficit to how do we utilize the resources to get back to a 100 percent level of service on bus and subway?”
The move comes shortly after the MBTA implemented a series of reductions that officials began to discuss last summer, long before COVID-19 vaccines were approved and at a time when federal relief funds seemed unlikely.
With ridership down significantly, weekend commuter rail trains have been eliminated on several lines and subway trips have been reduced by up to 20 percent on the Green, Orange, and Red lines. The agency also reduced service on the Blue Line, several bus routes, and the ferry system.
Officials had defended the plan as a way to save money for shortfalls in a post-pandemic era if ridership and fare revenue remain low for years. They’ve also said the cuts reflect an appropriate level of service because systemwide ridership is still less than a third of its pre-pandemic rates. And they stressed the busiest bus lines would have more frequent service than a year ago to help aid in social distancing.
But the cutbacks generated an unusually public backlash from the state’s congressional delegation, who pointed to the more than $1 billion in new funding from two COVID relief bills approved by Congress since December, including President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The cuts, by contrast, were expected to save about $21 million through June.
“People throughout the Commonwealth who rely on public transportation are the very essential workers who have stepped up to help us during this public health crisis,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said Friday at a virtual rally hosted by the labor-backed Public Transit Public Good coalition. “These front-line workers include our transit workers who risk their lives day in and day out to keep America running. They deserve support. They deserve recognition. They do not deserve cuts.”
The most recent set of changes went into effect on Sunday, hitting the subway and bus networks. Service on the Orange Line was further disrupted by a derailment earlier this week that will require shuttle buses to replace trains for three weeks on a stretch north of Boston.
Michelle Nadow, chief executive of the DotHouse Health center in Dorchester, said the elimination of the Route 18 bus will interfere with access to a COVID-19 vaccine clinic and other health services at the site, which is located a half-mile from the nearest Red Line stop.
“The suspension of the number 18 bus cuts that lifeline off for everyone: for patients and for our employees to get here,” Nadow said.
Jarred Johnson, director of the advocacy group Transit Matters and a fierce critic of the service cuts, said he was encouraged by Poftak’s letter to Lynch, but noted it did not offer many specific details. Most crucial, he said, is ensuring no routes are eliminated.
“I think the devil’s going to be in the details. For a lot of advocates, this is what we’ve said the whole time: We’re amenable to conversations about service levels, but ending routes or not having services is a red line,” he said.
Poftak said service will be added back in multiple forms. Most immediately, he said, the agency will deploy more unscheduled buses and trains where demand is heaviest, bolstering scheduled service when possible, while also focusing on quickly hiring and training more workers. The MBTA will also consider restoring some of the eliminated bus routes when its next seasonal schedule is implemented in mid-June.
And, Poftak said, the MBTA will craft a budget for the fiscal year that begins in July with full funding for pre-COVID service levels on the bus and subway. That notably excludes commuter rail, but Poftak said officials are eager to experiment with a new schedule that runs trains more regularly throughout the day — a move that has been celebrated by advocates as a better use of the infrastructure. The agency will add more commuter rail service if ridership warrants it, he added.
While the MBTA is still concerned about long-term budget deficits, the money from the Rescue Plan should buy officials time to address those financial problems and to determine how travel patterns will shift after the pandemic, Poftak said. The Baker administration has indicated it expects telecommuting to remain a major part of work life going forward, a projection that would suggest lower transit ridership.
But many critics of the cuts have argued that the level of transit service after the public health crisis will play a role in shaping travel patterns and the economic recovery.
“Public transit ... will be an integral part of how we recover from this pandemic,” Representative Katherine Clark said, speaking at the same rally as Warren. “We call on the MBTA to reverse these cuts to ensure that we can rebuild an economy that is equitable and inclusive for all.”
The Biden administration has said the federal funding was intended to prevent transit cuts and layoffs amid steep ridership and fare revenue losses during the pandemic. A provision in the Rescue Plan suggests agencies must demonstrate they are not laying off workers if they plan to use the funding for purposes other than running service or daily operations.
The MBTA did not plan to lay off any of its own transit operators. However, about 40 conductors employed by Keolis Commuter Services, the private company that operates the commuter rail, were expected to lose their jobs. Poftak confirmed he would reverse that plan in his letter to Lynch.
“We commit there will be no layoffs or furloughs made by either the MBTA or Keolis — in keeping with both the letter and spirit of the American Rescue Plan. I embrace this as the correct path forward, and appreciate your support as well,” Poftak wrote.