|MBTA commuter rail passengers, like these in Framingham, would not be able to catch a train on weekends if proposed service cuts are adopted. (Photos By Michele Mcdonald for The Boston Globe)|
On the fast track to nowhere
T’s plan to cut weekend trains may leave some riders stranded
For most of the week, Andrew Nyamekye studies online and hunts for a job around his hometown of Framingham. But on Saturday mornings the 27-year-old, who left the Army Rangers about six months ago, rides commuter rail into Boston and catches the Orange Line to attend his cyber forensics classes at Bunker Hill Community College.
It’s a routine that Nyamekye said would become a big hassle if the MBTA eliminates weekend trains to help bridge a $161 million budget gap next fiscal year, as the agency proposed in January.
The cuts are among a slew of proposed changes, including fare increases of as much as 43 percent on average for commuter rail and T service, no commuter rail service on weeknights after 10 p.m., and reduced bus routes throughout the region.
“This would stink,’’ said Nyamekye, who served in Afghanistan until last summer. “I would have to drive in. I didn’t even know this was going on.’’
Nyamekye and other T riders have an opportunity to say what they think about the proposals. On Tuesday, MBTA representatives will hold a hearing in Framingham Town Hall from 6 to 8 p.m. to present their plan and gather public input.
The meeting is one of 20 that have been scheduled throughout Boston and its suburbs since the controversial proposals were unveiled along with warnings that the authority’s crushing $5 billion debt and aging infrastructure will probably to strain the budget even more in the future.
Commuter rail riders and their advocates west of Boston, including state and local officials, are expected to give MBTA representatives an earful. The proposed cuts come at a time when commuter rail was supposed to be expanding in the region.
Three years ago, Governor Deval Patrick struck a $179 million deal with railroad freight giant CSX in which the state purchased the company’s tracks between Framingham and Worcester, as well as other facilities, CSX moved its terminal operations from Allston to Worcester and Westborough, and both would fund improvements to rail bridges and tunnels between Interstate 495 and the New York state line.
With much of the freight traffic removed from the tracks, the deal paved the way for several additional trains to travel between Boston and Framingham and Worcester in the coming months, to as many as 20 inbound trains on weekdays. Now, those additional trains might cost more and not operate on weekends and late at night.
“It does seem unfortunate,’’ said Westborough Town Manager Jim Malloy, whose community welcomed the news of additional commuter trains after suffering years of infrequent and unreliable rail service because CSX freight cars had priority on the company’s 21-mile portion of track.
A similar irony would occur on the Fitchburg line. The state has been spending $250 million to improve the route, including building new stations and tracks that would sit idle for longer periods of time under the MBTA’s proposals.
“We spent all this money on improving the product to make it not serviceable,’’ said Acton Board of Selectmen chairman Mike Gowing, who added that many of his constituents could not afford to drive into Boston for work every day. “It’s always a big deal because people who rely on rail transit usually do so because they don’t have a lot of alternatives.’’
Richard Creem, who is Needham’s representative on the MBTA’s Advisory Board, said riders from his town would not miss weekend trains too much. Many Needham residents use MBTA buses to travel to Green Line T stations, however, he said, and the absence of night trains could permanently decrease ridership on the Needham line because many workers cannot leave their jobs early enough to make a 10 p.m. train.
“That service cut in particular would irreparably damage the commuter rail system,’’ said Creem. “People will be driven away permanently. If you are professional in Boston, sometimes you need to be at work late.’’
Creem and Gowing said the MBTA’s cuts and fare increases reflected an unfair situation where suburban public transportation riders were subsidizing the $15 billion Big Dig project, which cost significantly more than originally forecast and now benefits urban drivers.
“They are at this point because they have been saddled with Big Dig debt, debt they should never have been given,’’ said Creem. “They have a mountain of debt service that they have to fund annually. Until that debt is removed from the equation, we are going to have the T bumping up on this shortfall.’’
The weak economy in recent years also dampened sales tax revenues, a portion of which funds the T, said state Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who represents Framingham and surrounding towns. Spilka noted that federal funds helped pay for the state’s acquisition of the CSX tracks and the improvements on the Fitchburg line. Operational costs, on the other hand, she said, are shouldered by riders and state funding.
Spilka said the Legislature will watch the MBTA’s public meetings closely to see how it might put the authority on a more sustainable path and stop severe cuts that few people seem to want.
“There is clearly an incredible demand for increased public transportation,’’ she said.
Cutting weekend and late-night service would save $5.7 million annually, according to the MBTA website. Authority spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the cuts and fare increases are among a host of unfortunate decisions that officials have little choice to make absent new revenue.
In drafting the proposals, he said, MBTA officials worked hard not to cut the authority’s primary mission of getting commuters in and out of downtown Boston during rush hours.
“As you know, there are no proposals to reduce service during the periods of time when the service is most popular,’’ said Pesaturo.
State transportation officials stressed that train service during rush hours would remain in place and additional trains on the Worcester-Framingham line would be added in the coming months as planned. In the hearings so far, they said, most riders have indicated they are willing to pay slightly higher fares as long as there are enough trains and buses to fit their schedules.
“We’ve heard from a lot of people who say they are willing to pay for more service,’’ said Cyndi Roy, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. “But they don’t want to end service.’’
In March, after the public comment period ends, MBTA officials are expected to recommend a final set of proposed cuts and fare increases to the authority’s board, which will vote a month later on a plan that would take effect at the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1.
Pesaturo said the public hearings would be crucial to how officials and board members decide the authority’s future.
“The MBTA is faced with extraordinarily difficult decisions,’’ he wrote in an e-mail, “and that’s why our customers’ opinions about the proposals are an important part of this very public process.’’
John Dyer can be reached at email@example.com.