Metro

Baker cancels plan to eliminate all weekend commuter service

A Newburyport-bound MBTA commuter rail train out of Boston pulled in to the station in Rowley, Mass., earlier this month.

John Blanding/Globe staff

A Newburyport-bound MBTA commuter rail train out of Boston pulled in to the station in Rowley, Mass., earlier this month.

Governor Charlie Baker said Monday his administration has shelved a proposal to eliminate all weekend commuter rail service, an abrupt shift that follows an outcry from riders and political leaders.

“Our administration is exploring alternatives to last week’s MBTA budget proposals to make weekend commuter rail more efficient and will not pursue proposals to eliminate weekend service altogether,” Baker said.

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Baker’s announcement came as the MBTA also appeared to soften its stance on a proposal to reduce trips for as many as 10,000 riders who use the Ride, a door-to-door service for passengers with disabilities. On Monday, officials presented several potential alternatives to eliminating the service, including cutting back its hours, now 5 a.m. to 1 a.m.

The developments came one week after transit officials announced the proposed cuts, which would have made the MBTA the nation’s only major commuter rail system to completely shut down on the weekends, at a time Boston is experiencing a building boom.

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MBTA officials say the agency is facing a budget deficit of $42 million. Eliminating weekend service for one year, starting this summer, would save as much as $10 million.

Baker’s announcement appeared to end the discussion over cutting weekend service “altogether,” but it remained unclear whether the MBTA may still eliminate or scale back weekend service on certain lines.

Officials have also said they want to shut service on entire lines on some weekends for mandated rail safety upgrades.

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In any event, public transportation advocates hailed the retreat.

“I’m glad to see that the T is realizing, and the governor is realizing, that what they proposed is really not something they can go forward with,” said Rafael Mares, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group. “People really rely on this service.”

The prospect of eliminating weekend commuter rail service and thousands of trips on the Ride drew immediate criticism last week, including a letter from the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation that urged the agency to rethink the proposals.

During the Baker administration, MBTA leaders have not shied away from making unpopular decisions to save money, whether raising fares as high as legally allowed or eliminating late-night subway and bus service on weekends.

But Baker’s decision to back off from the current proposal, a move foreshadowed by his insistence on a radio show last week that service reductions were a “last resort,” shows the limits to that approach when faced with staunch public opposition.

The proposal also faced other potential hurdles. For one, the state’s 2015 fiscal year budget included a provision mandating weekend service on the Kingston/Plymouth line.

The MBTA was also criticized for considering service cuts without having a clear idea how many riders would be affected. As of Friday, the agency said it believed about 18,700 took the commuter rail on an average Saturday, but said it is also investing more money to improve its counting system.

Regarding proposed cuts to the Ride, MBTA officials said Monday they could coordinate or partner with other regional transit agencies or the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services to provide service to riders with disabilities, or modify current programs with ride-for-hire firms such as Uber and Lyft.

The MBTA is required to provide van service to disabled riders who cannot access its subway and bus routes, but officials say the agency provides rides in a much larger area than mandated. The MBTA has suggested reducing service in 12 towns, from Westwood to Topsfield, to save as much as $7.4 million.

The agency had proposed a similar move in 2015, but its oversight board allowed advocates to work with officials to create cost-saving moves instead.

During that time, the MBTA debuted a partnership with Uber and Lyft that has proven to be popular among users of the Ride, and far less expensive. The program gives passengers discounted Uber and Lyft rides, while the MBTA subsidizes some of the fare.

At Monday’s weekly meeting of the fiscal and management control board, many users of the Ride protested the proposed reductions.

Trisha Malphrus, a Swampscott resident who uses a wheelchair, said scaling back the Ride’s range would prevent her from getting medical treatment and eliminate a critical transportation option for people with disabilities.

“Uber doesn’t work for me, Lyft doesn’t work for me,” said Malphrus, who was one of several to testify while wearing a sign that read, “Invest in Transit. Get these targets off our backs!”

James White, chairman of the MBTA’s Access Advisory Committee, also urged the agency to take the proposal off the table. Disability advocates had worked extensively with MBTA officials in the past year to save money on the service, he said.

“People’s lives are at stake,” he said.

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