US faults MBTA for ending late-night ride service
Federal officials said the MBTA failed to follow civil rights guidelines that required the agency to fully examine whether the cancellation of late-night T service approved this week would disproportionately hurt minorities and low-income riders.
The MBTA said it began to conduct an analysis and its initial report suggested minorities and low-income riders would suffer from the cuts, but T officials never completed it because they decided that ending the service wasn’t a “major service change’’ that required a review.
The rebuke from the Federal Transit Administration comes as the MBTA’s board prepares to vote Monday to raise fares, a step many have decried as unfair to lower-income riders who are most dependent on the T. The T’s decision to forgo the civil rights analysis of the cutback was blasted by advocates who had argued that late-night service was an important service for riders who needed affordable transportation from night jobs.
“It’s outrageous,” said Rafael Mares, the vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation. “They shouldn’t end the service until they’ve done this. The whole point is to make sure there isn’t a negative impact on disadvantaged populations.”
The extended hours, in place for two years, kept the MBTA open two hours past the original closing time of 12:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. As of December 2015, the service provided about 13,000 rides a night.
In a March 3 letter to the MBTA, Federal Transit Administration officials disagreed with the T’s argument that ending late-night service was not a major service change.
“In this case, eliminating an hour and a half of service on ten bus routes and all subway lines clearly meets MBTA’s current major service change threshold, and, therefore, a service equity analysis must be conducted,” Linda Ford, the associate administrator of the FTA Office of Civil Rights, wrote to John Englander, the general counsel of the MBTA and the state transportation department.
According to the FTA, the T must prepare what is called a service “equity analysis” and revisit the decision “to determine whether all options that would eliminate or mitigate disparate impacts have been implemented.”
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the agency disagrees with the FTA, but will move forward with conducting the analysis. Officials say they believe they can provide alternatives for low-income and minority riders, such as improving lines they commonly use, while still cutting the late-night service.
“The MBTA is making progress in improving the system’s reliability and will continue to consider service enhancements that will improve equitable access,” Pesaturo said.
Ford said in her letter to the MBTA that it was important to remember that reviews of service cuts are necessary to show how badly changes will affect some disadvantaged people.
“Poor survey data, management changes, operational concerns, and budgetary constraints do not obviate the requirement to conduct the analysis,” she wrote. “While cost may be an issue for the board, it does not relieve MBTA of the requirement to comply with” regulations.
James Jay, the cochairman of the MBTA Rider Oversight Committee, has repeatedly reminded the MBTA about the need for an equity analysis. He filed a complaint to the FTA in December about the T’s failure to consider an analysis and filed another federal complaint after the board’s Monday vote to cut the service.
“We need to police the T to make sure they’re doing the right thing,” he said. “No matter what they say, they violated regulations.”
The MBTA said it had concluded an equity analysis and its initial report indicated there would be “disparate” effects on minority and low-income riders, according to a Jan. 19 presentation from Charles Planck, the assistant general manager of operations strategy and support.
At the time, Planck said MBTA officials were not sure those results were correct because they were working with old data and that officials would eventually complete and release the analysis. The MBTA has not released the initial analysis, despite requests from the Globe.
Last month, MBTA officials asked for a waiver from the FTA, saying that they believed an analysis was not necessary because the late-night service was a temporary program and its cancellation did not constitute a “major service change.” The Federal Transit Administration officially rejected that waiver Thursday in its pointed letter.
“We are aware of and concerned by the February 29, 2016, Fiscal Management Control Board’s decision to eliminate the late-night service by March 18, 2016,” Ford wrote in her letter.
The MBTA first implemented late-night service in March 2014, under Governor Deval Patrick’s administration. The extended hours were initially intended to be a yearlong test.
By early 2015, T officials were hinting that the service could be cut because it was too expensive to run. The pilot was extended past one year, but officials said the service cut down on the amount of time overnight workers had to work on maintaining the vehicles and tracks, and at $14.4 million for the 2015 fiscal year, cost too much to operate.
The program, however, was far more popular than the MBTA’s previous foray into late-night service in 2001. Ridership dropped steadily from its launch when the program provided about 16,000 rides a night.