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Late-night T service, Green Line project could get cut

Riders waited for a late-night Green Line train on Commonwealth Avenue.
Riders waited for a late-night Green Line train on Commonwealth Avenue.Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe/File/Globe Freelance

The MBTA appears poised to end late-night bus and subway service next year, after the fiscal control board overseeing the agency on Monday asked staff to begin the process of canceling it.

Also on Monday, state transportation board officials indicated they would proceed with the troubled Green Line extension only under certain conditions — if they continue at all. They want to make the project cheaper, find new management and contracting processes, and secure additional funding from local and private sources, rather than call on state government to pitch in even more.

The decisions come as transit officials are grappling with ways to balance the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority budget and shrink the ballooning cost of the extension, after officials said the project could cost nearly $1 billion more than estimates from last year.

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“Our primary goal here is to rein in the costs a little bit and make sure the taxpayers of Massachusetts are getting what they deserve,” said Russell Gittlen, a state transportation board member. Gittlen said the transportation board seeks to hold the MBTA accountable in its use of taxpayer money — especially for the Green Line extension.

Fiscal control board members have been hesitant to save late-night service, saying it costs too much and leaves employees too little time to maintain the agency’s aging vehicles overnight. Officials believe cutting the program could save $10 million to $14.8 million per year.

“I don’t like the idea of having to cut this service,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a board member. “But I think with the financial situation that we’re in, we need to focus on the core services that we need to provide.”

Before cutting the service, the MBTA must hold public hearings. A final vote is expected early next year, but on Monday, none of the five control board members voiced support for continuing the service.

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The agency launched the late-night service experiment in March 2014, and the program was scheduled to last at least a year. It extended door-to-door service for disabled riders, buses, and subways from 12:30 a.m. until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.

The service appeared to be popular when it debuted — it had about 18,000 riders in its first weekend — but ridership began to decline. In February, MBTA officials extended a scaled-back version of the pilot, which reduced service by about half an hour and cut bus lines with the lowest ridership.

Both the state transportation board and the fiscal control board overseeing the MBTA have sought to restore public confidence in the agency by insisting that they want to improve service and make sure agency officials are being fiscally responsible.

The fiscal control board was created by Governor Charlie Baker and the Legislature, part of Baker’s attempt to hold the agency more accountable after the T’s paralysis during last winter’s record-breaking storms.

In recent weeks, the boards have had to grapple with the revelations of big problems with the MBTA’s long-awaited Green Line extension, which would extend the trolley line 4.7 miles and build seven stations in Somerville and Medford.

In August, transportation officials revealed that the price for the project could balloon from about $2 billion to about $3 billion. Consultants hired by the MBTA have said the agency’s employees were ill-equipped to oversee the project and allowed a contractor to take advantage of its contracting process.

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State transportation board members on Monday appeared unwilling to invest state funds in the project beyond what the MBTA had initially identified in its budget from last year. Under that budget, the state was prepared to pay nearly $1 billion.

Robert Moylan, a state transportation board member, said that the board had a fiduciary responsibility to the state. “I can say without any ambiguity that I would be highly reluctant to invest any more money in this project,” he said.

Members of the state transportation board and the fiscal control board unanimously supported the resolution that would allow the MBTA to move forward under certain conditions. In addition to its call for a cheaper, redesigned project and new management and contracting process, the resolution seeks money from sources such as the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the cities, landowners, and developers who would benefit from the project.

Rafael Mares, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation and advocate for the project, said he believed that vote outlined a “smart strategy.”

“Tying your own hands as to total price is a good negotiation strategy,” Mares wrote in an e-mail. “It sends a clear signal to contractors that they need to come in within a budget when they bid on the project; developers will also be on notice that they need to invest.”

But Mares said he wanted better information on how the project could be cheaper. Consultants hired by the MBTA have said the agency could save money if officials eliminate one of the Green Line stops, reduce the size of the other new stations, and reconsider moving a commuter rail track running near the project, but they have not put a dollar amount on the savings.

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Control board members will need to make critical decisions on the project as they are tackling other controversial issues, such as hiking fares. But on Monday, the control board signaled that its members were not eager to rush through decisions.

When asked by MBTA officials to consider eliminating some trips on the agency’s door-to-door service for disabled riders, board members asked for more information and delayed the vote. Officials estimated that the move to eliminate the trips outside a certain geographical area would save the MBTA $5.2 million to $10.4 million a year.

Board member Lisa Calise said voting on limiting the Ride, the agency’s service for disabled customers, would be “premature,” given the amount of information they had been given.

In addition, the board delayed a report to the Legislature that was due this week. The report, which was supposed to outline the steps the board has taken to help balance the MBTA budget, will be sent to the Legislature next Tuesday.


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