MBTA to end late-night service by mid-March
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Late-night hours on the MBTA will end March 18, after board members voted unanimously Monday to ax the service.
The 4-0 vote was met with consternation by supporters of late-night service. The move represents the second time in 15 years that Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials have given up on extended hours for the nation's fifth-largest transit system.
Proponents of late-night hours — which extended MBTA service on all subway lines and some bus lines to 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturday, from the usual 12:30 — have called it a safe alternative for students and service industry workers. They said it was a blow to low-income residents in an increasingly unaffordable city.
Bob Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said the cutback will leave riders — especially those who work late — in the lurch.
"To get home later at night is really important, as we all know, in today's marketplace," Luz said. "That puts a real hamper on our ability to get people back and forth, and I think that affects a lot of folks that need it the most."
Board members did not have a public discussion on the move on Monday, but in a motion to get rid of the service, Joseph Aiello, the chairman, said it "was not cost-effective."
The service cost the MBTA about $14.4 million during the 2015 fiscal year, and officials said running late-night buses and subway trains cut down on overnight maintenance.
"What's clear is that, [with] late-night service, as it has been provided, the ridership just did not justify the investment that was being made," Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told reporters after the meeting.
Charles Planck, the T's assistant general manager of operations strategy and support, said ridership had declined. Customers took about 16,000 rides nightly during the extended hours when the service first started, compared with 13,000 in December 2015, Planck said.
He also said that while late-night service was effective on weekends, those who need it nightly for their jobs were not being served.
"There aren't that many jobs that are only two nights a week," he said. "We think this late-night service is not a broad solution to economic access because it's not a seven-night-a-week service."
Yet while officials pointed out ridership declines, the program was much more popular than the T's previous foray into late-night service. In 2001, the MBTA began a "Night Owl" service that used buses on popular subway routes. Ridership eventually dropped to just over 600 a night; in 2005, officials decided to get rid of the service.
When then-governor Deval Patrick's administration gave late-night hours another go in 2014, officials hoped private sponsorships would offset the extra costs. But substantial sponsorships failed to materialize, with companies providing a total of $100,000, and The Boston Globe and the Red Sox providing about $750,000 worth of promotional services.
By the beginning of 2015, MBTA leaders were hinting the service could be cut. When a previous version of the board extended the pilot program, they scaled back the service by half an hour — from 2:30 to 2 a.m. — and cut some bus lines.
Since then, the current fiscal control board has taken steps to nix the service: In December, asked the T to take the steps needed to cut the service, and late shifts disappeared from driver schedules earlier this year.
The MBTA had previously said it would conduct an analysis to determine if the cut would disproportionately hurt lower-income and minority riders, and that a preliminary look suggested it would. But Pollack on Monday said that officials decided they did not have to complete such an analysis — even though they had started it — because they did not consider it a major service change. The MBTA did not immediately provide a copy of the initial analysis.
After MBTA officials made late night service's demise official, other companies said they were ready to step up to fill the void. Bridj, the Boston-based transit startup that moves riders on shuttle vans, was among the respondents to the MBTA's request for information last year to seek input from potential late-night service operators.
In a pitch to the T in September, Bridj's chief executive, Matthew George, said he was prepared to work with labor unions and could offer savings in the 30 to 70 percent range from existing costs for the late-night service.
The MBTA said about 80 people attended public meetings about the service, and another 270 or so submitted feedback. On Monday, two testified against cutting the service.
"Late-night service gives people access to jobs and opportunities," said David Senatillaka of Malden. "Late-night service gives people alternative options to getting home and cuts down on drinking and driving."
Far more people testified against the proposed MBTA fare hikes being voted on at next week's meeting.
Daniel Cahill, president of the Lynn City Council, told board members that if they need to increase fares, they should limit the increases to 5 percent.
Transportation "is not a luxury," he said. "It's a necessity in this community."