Experimental late-night T service, used by thousands of riders each weekend, will be extended until June 19 — a temporary victory for advocates who see it as an essential public service that boosts Boston’s status as a world-class city.
But transportation officials are making no guarantees beyond the summer that they will continue the program, which was sought as a way to retain young professionals and provide safe rides home to late-night workers.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said on Thursday that officials were extending the yearlong pilot to find out more about how customers use and need the service before making a final decision on the program
Pollack said that while she understands the benefits of late-night service, the choice will come down to competing priorities for the T’s limited budget.
“I get it, but I have all these other things that I’m trying to do, that the T is trying to do, that require investment as well, and there are going to be hard choices,” she said.
Supporters have long pushed for late-night service, which is common in other major cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.
MBTA officials plan to gather opinions from riders until March 11, then make a final recommendation April 15.
The T will publicize its data on the ridership, costs, and revenue of the program, and explain how riders can deliver their opinions, at a Feb. 11 Department of Transportation board of directors meeting.
MBTA data suggest that the trial service was popular. Between March 28 to Jan. 4, it counted 1.1 million rides during late-night service, including transfers.
Through March, the T expects the total to reach 1.4 million rides.
Ridership on the trial service averaged between 15,000 to 17,000 rides per weekend during the warm months, before tailing off after Thanksgiving, according to data from the T.
The T tried introducing late-night service in 2001 by adding bus routes along subway lines; by the time that service was canceled in 2005, ridership had dwindled to 700 a night.
Compared to that early experiment, the current program is a success.
But the T ultimately pays a high subsidy — $7.68, nearly three times the cost of a regular subway ride — per passenger.
The T projects that revenue for the yearlong trial period will be about $2 million in fares, with an additional $105,000 in revenue from corporate sponsorships.
That falls far short of covering the costs of the $13 million program.
The current trial program, launched last March, extends service on Friday and Saturday by 90 minutes on all subway lines, 15 key bus routes, and the RIDE, the agency’s paratransit agency for passengers with disabilities.
At the time, public officials said they needed customers to prove their reliance on the service to keep the late-night rides going, though the T set no ridership goals.
Recently, transportation officials have hinted that budgetary restrictions could threaten the continuation of the service.
On Thursday, T officials said that the most active late-night stations and bus routes service are in areas with many students.
The T has no formal research about how many riders are hotel, restaurant, and health-care workers, even though the restaurant industry has called late-night service a crucial program for workers with late shifts.
Beverly A. Scott, the general manager of the T, said she is eager to find out how the public feels about the program, so officials can more accurately determine its success.
“What would the medical industry say? What would the restaurateurs say?” she said.
“At the end of the day, this is about finances and what we can afford, but then the other part of it is, honestly, what do the customers feel?”
Rose Yates, an assistant general manager for the T, explained that agencies across the country that offer late-night service heavily subsidize their programs.
When board chairman John R. Jenkins asked Yates what she had learned about late-night service from other transit agencies, she underscored the costs.
“It’s an expensive endeavor,” she said. “There’s no question about that.”
Because of limited resources, Yates said the T was faced with several options: eliminating late-night service; continuing the service, but with route and frequency changes; charging a late-night fare; and increasing revenue from sponsorships.
Pollack said the decision ultimately lies with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board of directors, who will approve the MBTA’s budget.
But she also added that the decision is not easy to make, considering that the T never set goals for ridership or the acceptable subsidy cost per passenger.
“We didn’t set a target, so I can’t tell you whether the pilot met expectations,” she said.
Pollack said the subsidy per passenger was higher than she had expected.
But she added that various changes, such as cutting routes and saving money in other ways, may be able to change that calculation.
Councilor Michelle Wu, who testified on Thursday in support of the program, welcomed the extension to June, but said it was just the beginning of the battle.
“The challenge now is to make sure that everyone that has a stake in this voices their support,” she said. “The pilot has shown that people love Boston at night, and this is about economic opportunity.”