When public officials launched a yearlong trial to provide late-night subway and bus rides to much fanfare last March, they touted the service as a long-awaited way for the city to retain talented young professionals and tech workers while boosting night life at the same time.
The fate of the late-night schedule, officials said, lay with the region’s riders, who had to prove their reliance on a service that was long sought after, but had already been tested and scrapped a decade before.
As the end of the trial approaches, the number of weekend late night trips has surpassed 860,400. But it appears that the future of late-night rides may ultimately come down to a lack of state funding — and few political leaders and businesses appear ready to fight for the survival of the service.
Transportation officials have hinted that they could push the program to the chopping block to help cover a $765 million deficit in the state’s budget. And so far, the corporations that could ultimately benefit from the service by retaining young talent have largely failed to help cover the costs of the $13 million pilot program.
“I don’t have any question about the fact that it’s valuable, but it’s got costs,” said Beverly A. Scott, MBTA general manager.
But Malia Lazu, executive director of the Future Boston Alliance, said losing the extended late night hours would be a mistake.
“It’s ludicrous, it’s laughable, and we should be ashamed of it,” she said. “I think it’s shameful for a major city to expect its transportation system to shut down at midnight.”
Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman, declined to say when riders could expect a recommendation on the program’s continuation, but T officials are expected to give a public presentation on late-night service to the MassDOT board’s finance committee within a few days.
Key leaders appear to be worried by the costs of the program, in light of the state deficit. Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a strong supporter who helped announce the new program during a festive Kendall Square press conference last year, said in a prepared statement that it was “unfortunate” that crucial services such as the late-night T could be put on hold.
“I am hopeful that the state will be able to find the revenue to maintain this service that has already benefited so many of our residents, businesses, and visitors,” he said.
But the state doesn’t appear to be strongly championing the program’s continuation either. Billy Pitman, a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker, said the MBTA’s spending plan for this year never included funding for continuing late-night hours beyond March 31.
Because the state is facing a deficit, officials need to “identify mutual priorities and balance the budget responsibly while protecting taxpayers and local aid,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Janice Loux, a Massachusetts Department of Transportation board member, struck a similar chord. “Sometimes you have to make hard decisions, and I think that the public debate and our leadership will look at it that way,” she said.
Stephanie Pollack, transportation secretary under Baker, said the decision will be difficult to make because officials never set any benchmarks to measure the program’s success.
“We didn’t say late night service will be a success if we can move x number of people at y dollars per person,” she said.
The MBTA last tried extending hours with a Night Owl bus service that ran along popular subway routes in 2001. At first, customers were enthusiastic, but ridership eventually dropped to just 700 passengers a night. The T tried cutting various routes before finally ending the money-losing venture four years later.
This new pilot program was supposed to be different: Instead of introducing unfamiliar bus lines, the T kept all rapid transit lines, 15 popular bus lines, and The Ride, the agency’s paratransit agency, extended hours by about 90 minutes, with the last trains leaving downtown stations at about 2:30 a.m.
More than 18,000 used the service during its opening weekend in March. Ridership was fairly steady — averaging between 15,000 and 17,000 during the summer — until Thanksgiving, when many of the city’s college students started going home for the holidays and hunkering down for exams.
Yet while riders responded with enthusiasm, private partners that could offset the costly program didn’t. Even though MBTA officials offered extensive corporate sponsorships, fewer than a half-dozen companies provided financial support. Dunkin’ Donuts, Suffolk Construction, and the Massachusetts Restaurant Association provided a total of $100,000. Another $750,000 in promotional services came from The Boston Globe and the Red Sox.
For supporters, the end of the service would be a tough pill to swallow. Lazu, whose Future Boston Alliance threw parties to celebrate the new service, said Boston has long been behind cities with similar populations, such as Washington, D.C., and Denver, which operate their transit agencies past midnight on weekends.
“Not only should it not be a debate, but I don’t think it behooves us to sell this as an innovative move forward,” she said. “I think Boston needs to play catch-up.”
Bill Jacobson, the chief executive officer of Workbar, which runs shared office spaces in Cambridge and Boston that are popular among innovation workers, said the service helps retain the kind of tech company employees that cities love to attract.
“I think Boston is a major, world-class city, and having a transportation system that takes into account the global economy and a 24-7 work cycle is part of that,” he said.
Bob Luz, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, called the program a “godsend” for the employees who work in hotels and bars. About 20 percent of riders used the late-night service for work, State House News Service quoted Scott as saying.
Rafael Mares, a senior lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation, said he hopes T officials will try altering the frequency of trains and the most popular routes, rather than dropping the service altogether after only one year.
“In other cities, late-night service is normal and the usage has been huge,” he said. “I think that you might get there in Boston if you allow it to go on long enough.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect spelling of Workbar.