Metro

Late-night MBTA service could be gone within weeks

The MBTA started its latest experiment with late-night service in March 2014.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File
The MBTA started its latest experiment with late-night service in March 2014.

Though Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials haven’t yet voted on a proposal to eliminate late-night bus and subway service, the agency has given drivers schedules for the spring that do just that.

When subway drivers recently began choosing their shifts, they noticed a big omission on the schedules: Beginning March 19, drivers no longer had to pick up shifts past 12:30 a.m., said a union official briefed on the schedules.

That caught some drivers and public transit activists off guard, particularly because the MBTA has not made any formal announcement about the end of late-night service. Though members of its fiscal control board have appeared ready to ax the service, the board will not vote until Feb. 29.

Advertisement

Caroline Casey, a community organizer for the T Riders Union, said she believes MBTA officials held public meetings about whether to cut the service with their minds already made up. “This isn’t about logistics, this isn’t about planning ahead,” she said. “This is about the fact that this public process is a sham.”

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

But despite the newly released driver schedules, board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt said officials have not made up their minds about getting rid of the service. Eliminating the shifts on the new schedules was a matter of practicality, she said.

“We didn’t want to have them sign up for things that could be changing,” she said.

Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, agreed. “No decision has been made,” he said in an e-mail. “The [fiscal control board] is expected to consider its options later this month.”

Pesaturo said spring schedules do not include the late-night shifts because the MBTA believes it’s easier to add passenger rail trips than to remove them from a schedule.

Advertisement

Currently, the MBTA runs subway trains and some buses until about 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

The potential elimination of the service — which cost about $14 million during the 2015 fiscal year — comes as MBTA officials make several cost-saving moves to close a $242 million budget gap in fiscal year 2017.

The MBTA sets the schedules for workers, who choose their shifts four times a year, during periods called “the pick.”

If workers pick shifts that are later eliminated, Pesaturo said, they would still be entitled to be paid for them.

But if the late-night shifts are added later, the T may still need to pay more — since some workers may have to take the shifts at overtime rates.

Advertisement

Late-night service has had a mixed record for 15 years.

‘We didn’t want to have them sign up for things that could be changing.’

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, MBTA board member, on why spring schedules do not have times for late-night drivers 

In 2001, the MBTA tried a “Night Owl” bus service that ran along popular subway routes. Four years later, ridership dropped to just 700 passengers a night, and officials nixed the service.

Late-night service got a second chance in March 2014, under Deval Patrick, the governor at the time.

Officials hoped businesses would help subsidize the extended hours, which stretched until about 2:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. But over time, few businesses stepped up: A handful provided financial support for a total of $100,000, and The Boston Globe and the Red Sox contributed about $750,000 in promotional services.

The service proved to be much more popular than the Night Owl service: Ridership averaged between 15,000 and 17,000 during the first few months, though it eventually dropped. About 13,000 riders used the service every weekend, according to November 2015 numbers.

By the beginning of 2015, T officials hinted that a lack of funding could halt the program. They said the service was costly and that because of it workers had less time to do maintenance on trains overnight. In February, under a new administration, the T decided to extend what had been a pilot program but scaled back the service by about half an hour and cut out late-night bus routes with low ridership.

In recent months, board members have not voiced support for the service. They told officials to move forward with public hearings that would be necessary before any cuts, and the MBTA held three such meetings in January.

Tibbits-Nutt said she and other board members have been clear that they believe the money could better help passengers during peak hours.

“I’ve been on the side of saying, ‘There are better ways to use this money, and there are better ways to invest in core service,’ ” she said.

Still, for regular users of the service, the news that its end may be imminent was disheartening.

Logan Trupiano, a Suffolk University student, testified at one of the public meetings, saying that the service made students safer.

“It’s clear that the decision has been made,” Trupiano said. “It’s rough for students like myself who use it.”

Steve Annear of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.