For the MBTA, overnight service is a line item in a budget, and an optional one at that. But if you’re a restaurant server or a home health aide whose shift ends after the T shuts down around 12:30 a.m., not having a cheap way home is an immediate problem. Give the advocacy group TransitMatters credit for keeping this issue alive.
Since the T nixed its most recent late-night experiment earlier this year, TransitMatters has been pushing a clever alternative that’s both cheaper and more ambitious: Instead of a couple of extra hours of rail and bus service, it’s proposing a pared down bus network that would run all night every night.
It would cover the heart of the region with just nine or so bus routes radiating outward from a central rendezvous point, such as Copley Square. To limit the number of vehicles and drivers involved, buses would arrive only once every 75 minutes — hardly lavish, but still a boon to workers with no other way of getting home. The TransitMatters plan came up for preliminary discussion before the T’s financial control board Monday. The agency should welcome the outside help, but has been slow to do the research necessary to vet the idea properly.
The now-canceled experiment with longer Friday and Saturday service was geared primarily for users going out on the town; the TransitMatters plan, in contrast, is designed primarily to get people to and from work off hours. “This is not a two-night-a-week service for the drunk college kid,” says Jim Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary who’s a member of the TransitMatters board. “The drunk college kid is certainly welcome to pay a fare and get on the bus, but that is not who this is for.”
The T, alas, is mostly set up to do what it’s always done. Any new initiative, such as later service, ends up on the chopping block whenever the a new budget crisis inevitably arises. Goals that should be easy to accomplish on paper look less simple within the transit agency’s baroque union contract.
Given the obstacles within the T, it’s no wonder that Logan Airport — perhaps the largest employment center dependent on late-night and early-morning labor — runs its own shuttles for workers. But most other employers, such as individual restaurants and hotels, lack the scale to follow suit. (The Massachusetts Restaurant Association did kick in some money for extended weekend service, and its president, Bob Luz, says the group was prepared to double its contribution.)
As housing costs soar in Boston’s urban core, people living on service-industry wages have to look farther and farther afield for rents they can afford. T officials needs to be willing to adapt to changing conditions — and recognize a smart idea when someone drops one in their laps.