The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s governing board on Monday put off a decision on new overnight bus service, saying the agency should find a cheaper way to extend hours.
The MBTA staff proposed a single route on a corridor from Chelsea to Mattapan, incorporating stops at Logan Airport and South Station. Buses would run every half hour between 1 a.m. and 4:15 a.m., seven nights a week.
The plan forecast ridership at 75,000 passengers during a one-year trial, with the cost of operating the buses at $1.68 million.
The T’s board expressed support for the idea, but it was wary of the price tag, which was pegged at about $22 per ride. The decision to seek a less expensive solution highlighted the difficulty that MBTA managers face in expanding service and improving reliability while getting spending under control.
“From my point of view, $22 per passenger is too high,” said Steve Poftak, a T board member and former interim general manager. “I think it’s an important service. It’s something I would like to support. I don’t think I can support it at $22.”
The board directed MBTA staff to explore three strategies to bring the price tag down: negotiating with the T’s union to reduce labor costs; seeing if another agency, such as the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan, may be willing to run the service; or finding a private contractor to run the bus route. The goal is to start service by next July.
The T has twice tried to run a late-night service since 2001, later canceling it both times because of costs.
Advocates for the new plan have pitched the idea as a way to serve low-income, off-hours workers; past efforts were often marketed as serving college students and nightlife revelers, with service running only on weekends. Prior to Monday’s meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, supporters had pushed for a more extensive late-night service built around multiple routes.
Still, transit advocates and restaurant industry officials called for the board to approve the single-route plan. But the T’s new general manager, Luis Ramirez, urged the board to hold off, marking his most publicly assertive policy position since starting in the job in September.
Ramirez cited the potential impact to the agency’s budget bus maintenance schedules as a reason for the agency to gauge the private sector’s willingness to operate the service at a lower cost. The T’s budget is already growing beyond projections, he noted, due to unexpected operating costs and a ridership decrease.
The MBTA got a tepid response from private companies when it sought proposals earlier this year. Bus companies were not interested, the T said, because they would struggle to staff the early-morning hours. The ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft said they would be interested in partnering with the T, but would not be able to offer the fixed routes the T required.
But board members on Monday suggested companies may be more interested now, because the T has now defined a specific route and developed a ridership projection.
The advocacy group Transit Matters has been pushing the overnight proposal since early 2016, and later won the support of officials in Boston and several neighboring cities.
Marc Ebuna, the cofounder of Transit Matters, described the group as “a little deflated by the fact that the board did not make a final decision today.”
But he was overall optimistic that the plan would eventually be approved.
“It’s encouraging that the board is working in good faith to reduce the costs of overnight service to make sure it’s viable and sustainable,” he said.
The most recent incarnation of late-night service extended hours on the subway and some key bus routes past 2 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It ended in 2016 after about two years, as the T sought to save money and clear the rails to allow more overnight maintenance. Transit Matters began pushing its idea around that time.
Earlier this year, the T approved a separate but related proposal to boost early-morning service on 10 crowded bus routes starting next year, allowing some to begin operating as early as 4 a.m. Few routes operate that early today.
Also Monday, board members suggested the T may need to consider canceling a troubled contract for dispatching and scheduling on its paratransit service, The Ride.
After being awarded a 3.5-year, $38.5 million contract, Global Contact Services earlier this year began running door-to-door trips in sections of Greater Boston resulting in a torrent of customer complaints of late rides, circuitous routes, and poor communication.
After some improvement over the summer, on-time performance has stayed under a target goal of 90 percent most of the fall, the rate of missed trips in recent weeks is roughly double the rate from a year ago, and efficiency savings have not been realized.
With The Ride about $13 million over-budget this year, Joseph Aiello, the board’s chairman, said the agency must begin thinking of “an end game.”
“Forget about saving money. It’s always a nice thing to save money,” he said. “But more important, the failure to deliver service we have committed to our stakeholders is not acceptable and at some point I think we need to really think hard about what the future entails.”Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.