Acting Mayor Kim Janey appeared with transit advocates Monday to beseech the MBTA Fiscal Management and Control Board to restore service levels on the bus and subway systems that were reduced as ridership plummeted amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“MBTA service cuts short-change the needs of Boston’s workers and ignore the sacrifices they make each day to keep our city running,” Janey said.
Service cuts, said the mayor, makes buses and trains more crowded and undermines efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“We know that social distancing helps to keep us all safe,” she said. “Cuts to transit service only deepen the inequities of our public transit system.”
Earlier this month, MBTA officials reduced service on the Orange, Green, and Red lines by about 20 percent and cut trips on the Blue Line by 5 percent. A number of bus routes were also scaled back or eliminated, although some of the busiest lines have more service now than they did a year ago.
Earlier this year, the MBTA sharply reduced ferry service and eliminated weekend commuter rail trains on several lines.
The agency has since backtracked 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.
At Monday morning’s news conference in front of state transportation offices in downtown Boston, Janey said the city is also launching a public transportation pilot program to provide free Charlie cards for the period March 29 to April 19 to workers in certain neighborhoods hit hard by the pandemic. The program would support employees in several “main streets” districts, including: Nubian Square, Jackson Square, Hyde Square, Canary Square, Mission Hill, East Boston, and Fields Corner.
“We will provide nearly 1,000 workers with free Charlie cards, pre-loaded with $60 each,” she said. “We will also provide these workers with free two-month Blue Bike passes.”
Residents can get more information on the program at boston.gov/freeride to see if they qualify. Or they can text “free ride” to 866-396-0122.
Janey’s criticism of service cuts was echoed by a number of other advocates who briefed reporters.
“We say no to service cuts, because our members, residents of Chelsea and East Boston, rely heavily on this transit service and have continued to throughout this pandemic,” said activist Olivia Nichols.
She continued, “These two communities are among the hardest hit by COVID, and the pandemic is still deeply affecting families every day. The folks of Chelsea and East Boston, many of whom are essential workers, have put their lives on the line, risking their health and the health of their families. It is extremely disconcerting to see buses passing by that are full-capacity, because the majority of people riding buses and trains have no other option.”
Brian Moy, a local restaurant owner, said restoring full service would help his industry, which has been devastated by the pandemic.
“We literally cannot reopen if our employees cannot come to us,” Moy said. “If our customers cannot come to us during normal business hours, we will not be able to survive. Public transportation is essential for our survival here in Boston.”
Dwaign Tyndal, executive director of Alternatives for Community & Environment, said his group will continue to aggressively push for full T service.
“We will aggressively [challenge] the legality of community impact cuts,” Tyndal said.
Amid withering criticism from the state’s congressional delegation, the MBTA recently pledged that it would use funds from the American Rescue Act to promptly restore service levels on the bus and subway.
But officials have not yet offered a definitive timeline of when the reduced service will return, and have not made the same commitment about restoring service on the ferry system, which has seen dramatic cutbacks, or on several commuter rail lines that have lost weekend service.
MBTA officials are scheduled to begin discussing the budget for the next fiscal year — including service levels — at a board meeting Monday.
Before the meeting, Chris Dempsey, the director of Transportation for Massachusetts, pushed for MBTA authorities to vote to restore service “as soon as they possibly can.”
“The money is there to restore service immediately,” said Dempsey.
Janey’s predecessor, the recently confirmed US Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, was also deeply critical of the service reductions as the MBTA planned them last fall and winter.
In a recent letter to Congressman Stephen Lynch, T 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 a recent 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 recently told the Globe. “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?”
Adam Vaccaro of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.