MBTA board considering cutting late-night T service

Weekend commuter rail service could also be on the chopping block.

Late-night MBTA service could be eliminated.
Late-night MBTA service could be eliminated. –The Boston Globe

For the second time this year, late-night T service is on the chopping block.

Members of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Wednesday seemed open to abandoning the weekend bus and subway service, which runs until 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday mornings, to cut costs.

“I would be prepared to look at that service, perhaps offering it differently,’’ Control Board chairman Joseph Aiello said. “But also, depending on the nature of the discussion, [I’m] open to saying that that’s not a business we should be in.’’

Steve Poftak, the board’s vice chair, said he questioned whether the service interferes with the MBTA’s ability to do repair and maintenance work during off-hours.

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Board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt also seemed ready to move on.

“I’m open to looking at a different way to do it, but I’m also not wedded to the idea of continuing to operate the service,’’ she said.

The board members spoke after a presentation by MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve that showed the late-night service transports about 13,000 passenger rides each day on the weekends, compared to 1 million rides on the bus and subway during normal hours every day.

It costs the T $13.38 to subsidize each late-night rider, compared to $1.43 it costs the agency to pay for each regular-service bus and subway ride. Operating the service costs the T about $14.4 million per year, Shortsleeve said.

He said the T could consider canceling late-night service, partnering with companies like Uber, Lyft, or Bridj to provide the service, or adjusting prices for the late-night travel. But the conversation Wednesday mostly focused on canceling it.

Late-night service was launched in 2014 as a pilot program. Officials considered canceling it before the control board was created in July, but decided to keep it around with some reductions in service.

“There was a sense that ridership would be much higher than it has been,’’ Shortsleeve said.

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The restaurant industry, where employees often get off work well after midnight, heavily supported the idea of late-night transit. Bob Luz, the CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said in an interview Wednesday that his organization “would hope that somehow money is found to continue this project.’’

“I do know that hospitality workers have been using it,’’ he said. “They see it as a safe, efficient, affordable alternative to get to and from work. So we would love to see it continue. But at the same time, I do realize there are budgetary constraints and issues. … But if you look at most large cities, cosmopolitan cities, they have transportation systems that run past 12 o’clock.’’

One of the T’s board members, Brian Lang, is the president of Boston’s Local 26, a hotel and restaurant workers union. At Wednesday’s board meeting, during the discussion about possibly canceling service, Lang simply said: “It makes sense.’’

Board member Lisa Calise asked how the T originally expected the late-night service to perform. If it had failed to reach those benchmarks, it would be “easier to eliminate’’ it, she said.

“So what we’re doing is sunsetting something that didn’t work as it was intended to work, versus elimination of a service,’’ she said.

MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola responded by saying the T expected to receive more money from the private sector to help fund the service.

“The operational costs never really materialized,’’ he said.

Aiello said the topic would be revisited again at a meeting in the ’’near-term.’’ He said that if the service is canceled, he would like to give riders “a couple months notice, try and get through winter.’’ Tibbits-Nutt said her preference would be to end it sooner.

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Shortsleeve’s presentation about late-night service also included a look at low-ridership, high-cost bus routes, which are located in the suburbs, he said. The T is planning to begin a broader bus service plan review that could see routes adjusted.

Officials have considered outsourcing low-ridership bus routes to private companies, which has generated criticism from labor officials.

Meanwhile, Shortsleeve said weekend commuter rail service—which costs the T $23.52 per rider, compared to $4.52 on weekdays—could be subject to price adjustments, replacement with a lower-cost service like buses, or outright elimination.

The control board hardly discussed the weekend commuter rail options Wednesday. Shortsleeve said some lines are busier than others on weekends, and that information could be shared at a later meeting to further inform board members’ decisions.

The T has been exploring a number of options—including new advertising revenue, increased parking fees, and fare hikes and service cuts on its paratransit service—to close a large budget deficit for next year and beyond.

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