By Lauren Bennett
As part of its “Forging Ahead” program in response to ridership changes, the MBTA announced on November 9 several proposed changes to service, and is looking for feedback from riders.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said at the MBTA Fiscal & Management Control Board meeting on Monday that for next year, there is nearly a $580 million budget gap. He said the T is “in this position because of a tremendous loss in fare revenue as ridership has decreased,” and there is “very low ridership on certain services.” He added that “the service reductions are not intended to be a permanent shrinkage of MBTA services.”
Changes are proposed across the range of services offered by the MBTA, from rapid transit to ferry to the commuter rail to bus service. Starting this week, the MBTA will be engaging the public through virtual community meetings and a public hearing to gather feedback about the proposed changes to service. There is also an online comment form for riders to provide questions and comments.
“The MBTA’s fare revenue, while above the lowest levels seen at the beginning of the pandemic, has remained at unprecedentedly low levels and the ongoing impact of COVID-19 in Massachusetts is likely to limit our path to recovery,” Poftak said in a video posted on the MBTA’s Forging Ahead webpage.
He said that the T is currently still only running about 330,000 trips during an average weekday, but is running about the same level of service as it did to have 1.26 million trips before the pandemic hit.
“This level of service delivery, along with the loss in revenue, is not sustainable,” Poftak said.
He said that since August, ridership, along with fare revenue trends, have been monitored by the MBTA, and he said that the MBTA is “taking steps to control costs,” which includes “implementing a head count freeze, pausing executive pay increases,” and “updating our savings projection” from the RIDE service because of lower ridership.
For Chelsea, the greatest concerns are the bus routes, and making sure no cuts hit these essential, high-volume routes – though the 112 at Market Basket Mall is slated for a reduction in service.
Poftak said that bus service “remains among our most durable services in terms of ridership,” but changes are still being proposed including reducing the number of routes run as well as “consolidating and restructuring certain routes,” Poftak said. Some routes will also be eliminated. He said that 80 routes have been deemed “essential,” and 60 have been deemed “non-essential,” which could face a drop in frequency by 20 percent. Essential routes could see an aggregate drop in frequency by five percent, “but it will not be an across the board cut,” Poftak said, as crowding will continue to be monitored on bus routes and service can be adjusted accordingly.
Many riders are concerned about these proposed changes, and have spoken out in opposition. A coalition of “business, labor, transportation, and environmental justice organizations” has banded together to form a campaign called Transit is Essential. The campaign “will underscore the importance of keeping the T accessible and affordable to all,” according to a press release.
““A reliable public transportation system is essential to keeping businesses operating safely, efficiently, and profitably during and after the pandemic,” Chenelle Brown of the Alliance for Business Leadership’s Board of Directors and CMBG3 Law said in a statement. “We cannot allow public transportation, the lifeline of Greater Boston, to become a casualty of COVID-19. Pulling the rug out from under the MBTA now will put us further behind in meeting the long-term infrastructure and service improvement goals that are key to making Massachusetts a desirable and affordable place to do business.”
State Senator Sal DiDomenico testified at the meeting on Monday, which also included a discussion of the budget, calling for the continuation of Phase One of the resolutions for the environmental justice corridor in the Fiscal Year 2021 and 2022 capital investment plan, including the electrification of the Newburyport/Rockport line, higher train frequency, and the fares set at the rapid transit rate.
He said that it is “a matter of environmental justice for those neighborhoods” in his district where the diesel engine trains emit exhaust.
“So many essential workers rely on public transportation,” he said, and they need to be able to take transit without worrying about crowding.
Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino agreed with DiDomenico about the importance of following through on the changes to the environmental justice corridor that runs through Chelsea on the Newbury/Rockport line of the commuter rail.
“Only by maintaining these kinds of commitments can we ensure that cities like Chelsea, environmental justice communities, economically disadvantaged communities, communities of color, can actually benefit from commuter rail service and it doesn’t remain what it has often been: a transportation system mainly serving only those with financial means,” Ambrosino said.
He advocated for no service cuts to bus lines like the 111, 116, and 117. “Let me be clear that neither I nor anyone speaking today is blind to the severe financial constraints facing the MBTA as a result of COVID,” Ambrosino said. “But the communities we are trying to help here, they’re actually the ones that have been most disadvantaged; most adversely impacted disproportionately by COVID. I urge that you ensure that both your operating plan and your capital investment plan remain equitable and include a clear message that previous commitments to cities like Chelsea will be honored.”
Poftak reported that commuter rail ridership on the commuter rail is currently around 12 percent of what it was prior to the pandemic, and the MBTA is proposing to end all weekday service by 9pm and eliminate all weekend service. Additionally, there would be a reduction in service levels to reduce the amount of service at peak hours as well as eliminate some midday service that would “result in a reduction of trains from 505 daily trips to 430,” Poftak said.
“This is a significant drop, but we are not ceasing service on any lines and we will still be running multiple trains in the peak,” he added.
Ferry service also remains at about 12 percent, which is about seven passengers per trip, Poftak said. The MBTA is proposing to eliminate all ferry service “until ridership returns,” Poftak said. For commuters who rely on the Charlestown ferry, alternative service will be provided by the 93 bus.
Poftak said that a 20 percent reduction in frequency of rapid transit trains is proposed, and would be achieved by extending headways by about a minute.
“These changes are well within the service delivery policy that was passed in 2017,” he said, though he added that it is “obviously a reduction in service.”
Another large change proposed for rapid transit trains would stop service at midnight instead of 1am, and for the E Line to end at Brigham Circle, where passengers can transfer to the 39 bus for continued service to Heath Street.
The proposed cuts are not yet set in stone, and the public is encouraged to provide feedback about the changes. A vote on the changes is expected by the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control on December 7. For more information on the proposals and to submit comments, visit https://www.mbta.com/forging-ahead.