MBTA looks ready to pull plug on late-night service

The end of the program would mark the second time in recent history that the MBTA has tried and failed to make late-night service work.
The end of the program would mark the second time in recent history that the MBTA has tried and failed to make late-night service work.Aram Boghosian for the Boston Globe/File 2014

Late-night MBTA service could soon be eliminated, as agency officials deem their experiment with extended hours unsuccessful and expensive to subsidize.

As the fiscal control board that oversees MBTA finances looks for ways to dig out of a deficit, several board members appear ready to pull the plug on the MBTA’s pilot program that extended service on buses, subways, and the door-to-door service for disabled riders, for 90 minutes on Friday and Saturday nights.

At a meeting Wednesday, board members were blunt about whether they want to continue the service.

“I’m fine with just getting rid of it,” board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt said. “It really is expensive, and no one is using it.”


The late-night service provided rides to about 18,000 customers between 12:30 and 2:30 a.m. during its debut in March 2014. Now, about 13,000 riders use the service every weekend under scaled-back hours, which run until 2 a.m.

The end of the program would mark the second time in recent history that the MBTA has tried and failed to make late-night service work, and it would disappoint supporters who believed the extended hours could boost Boston’s status as a world-class city and help low-income workers who work late hours. The current pilot program is scheduled to run until June.

Boston Councilor Michelle Wu, who has testified in support of the service before the state transportation board, said she believes any decision to end the program would be short-sighted.

“We can’t just do that one-year number and say it’s too low and therefore it’s not worth it,” she said. “We’re really talking about the longer-term growth for the entire region’s economic development and future.”

MBTA chief administrator Brian Shortsleeve, who said he considers the pilot program “unsuccessful,” revealed the subsidies for late-night service at the board’s weekly meeting on Wednesday. The MBTA pays about $13.38 a trip to subsidize late night service, and few companies have stepped up to help pay for the costs.


“They hoped the ridership would really grow, and the business community would support it,” Shortsleeve said. “But that hasn’t happened.”

The subsidy for late-night service has grown over time. Earlier this year, MBTA officials said it cost about $7.68 to subsidize each trip, which was still 2.7 times more expensive than the cost of subsidizing a bus ride during normal hours.

During the 2015 fiscal year, the MBTA spent about $14.4 million to subsidize late night service for the subway, some popular bus routes, and the RIDE, the MBTA’s door-to-door service for disabled customers.

Board members now face several options regarding the service’s future, including charging more for late-night rides or outsourcing the service. Companies such as Bridj, an on-demand bus service that uses a smartphone app, have submitted ideas about how they can help provide the service.

Officials have been closely scrutinizing their most expensive services. On Wednesday, Shortsleeve also told the board that weekend commuter rail costs about $18 million to run. While a commuter rail ride on weekdays costs the MBTA about $4.52, the same service costs the agency about $25.32 on the weekend.

The board took no action on the services on Wednesday, and board members said they do not have a specific timeline for any decision on the program.

The T has tried and failed to make late-night service work before. In 2001, it started a Night Owl bus service that ran along popular subway routes, but ridership soon dwindled. Officials cut the program four years later.


Under Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, MBTA officials were eager to test out the late-night service again. When the MBTA launched the program, they said they had hoped corporate sponsorships could defray the costs.

Substantial support failed to materialize, even though the MBTA, now under Governor Charlie Baker, gave the program more time to prove itself. Before the year-long pilot ended, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack in February announced that the MBTA would extend the experiment — albeit a scaled-back version — to June 19 to gather more data.

The numbers have gotten more dismal with time, and some board members said they have big concerns about the program. Board member Steven Poftak said workers have less time overnight to fix subways, buses, and other infrastructure because of the extra hours.

“In the enthusiasm to get the program underway, we discounted the impact we have on maintenance,” he said.

Poftak also said the program has debuted alongside the rise of other late-night options, such as ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft — and that some people are less likely to rely on the T late at night.

“We benchmarked ourselves against other cities and said late-night service is one measure of how we’d be a world-class service and the work world is not all 9-to-5 now, but I think the experience has been different in terms of attracting riders,” he said. “There are more options, frankly, than there were two years ago.”


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.