The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is considering shutting down entire commuter rail lines during several weekends over the next two years, a move that would allow the agency to make mandated safety upgrades and help close a yawning budget gap.
The MBTA last week released a projected schedule of cancellations in 2017 and 2018 that would shut down nine lines for entire weekends at various times, and officials confirmed on Sunday that it does not currently plan to provide alternative service during the closures.
Rafael Mares, a senior attorney at Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston group that lobbies for better public transportation, said he worries that scaling back already limited weekend service could discourage passengers.
“What happens is when you take service away for a number of months, then people get out of the habit of using it,” said Mares. “So when it comes back, it’s not going to be as popular of a service, so it can be a bit of a death spiral.”
Asked about such concerns, Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, said the agency is required by federal law to install the anti-collision technology.
The MBTA, like all US transit systems, must install an anti-collision technology known as “positive train control” to comply with a federal government mandate. Despite delays in adopting the technology, the MBTA hopes to complete the $459 million project, financed largely by the federal government, by 2020.
Reducing service would speed up the project and save the agency substantial amounts of money, MBTA officials have said.
Because weekend commuter service draws far fewer riders than service on weekdays, the MBTA pays a much higher subsidy for each weekend ride. The MBTA spends about $5.10 subsidizing every weekday ride, while each weekend ride costs more than $33 in subsidies.
In recent months, officials have said balancing the 2018 fiscal year’s budget will take “tough choices,” such as getting rid of workers by privatization, lower wage rates for new hires, and changes to work rules.
The MBTA’s oversight board is expected to discuss reductions at its weekly meeting Monday during a broad discussion of cost-cutting moves. Last week, MBTA officials presented the board with a schedule of weekend shutdowns needed to install the safety upgrades, a move that drew little media attention. The tentative schedule included no changes on the Greenbush, Middleborough, Providence, or Kingston/Plymouth lines, but as many as 15 weekends without service for the Worcester line in 2018.
The federal deadline for adopting positive train control is the end of 2018, but the MBTA plans to file for an extension. To be eligible, the MBTA must meet certain criteria, such as having the hardware installed by the end of 2018.
The project requires installing technology in 100 MBTA locomotives, 25 Pan-Am locomotives, and 114 train cars.
The MBTA has faced chronic budget woes, and has taken steps to outsource some services. Last week, officials said they want to solicit bids to privatize several bus garages to save about $26 million annually, and the MBTA’s acting general manager, Brian Shortsleeve, said the agency must be “ruthless” in becoming more efficient.
Shortsleeve told reporters that private companies would reduce costs through a “combination of productivity, management styles, and use of technology.”
The MBTA is already privatizing its cash collection and warehousing departments. Facing the threat of more outsourcing, the MBTA’s largest labor group, the Boston’s Carmen’s Union, agreed in December to give up a bargained raise and reduced wages for future workers to protect thousands of jobs from being outsourced.Nicole Dungca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.