The MBTA is facing a federal complaint for ending late-night service

Advocates aren't asking for late-night service to return, but for an alternative to replace it.

Late-night MBTA service ended in March.
Late-night MBTA service ended in March. –The Boston Globe

In a federal complaint filed Tuesday, transit and neighborhood advocates said the MBTA botched the cancellation of late-night weekend service earlier this year. They argue that the T used flawed data to suggest the move would not have an overly burdensome effect on low-income and minority riders and that it should have taken steps to curb those impacts before ending the service in March.

Before nixing a service, transit agencies are required by the federal government to conduct an “equity analysis,” a statistical look at whether the cancellation will affect low-income or minority riders more than the general ridership. If the answer is yes, then the agency must consider alternatives to outright canceling the service and, if reasonably doable, implement the new service, according to the federal civil rights rules.

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Three local advocacy groups — the Conservation Law Foundation, Alternatives for Community and Environment, and the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition — say the T failed to do so while cutting late-night service in the complaint filed with the Federal Transit Administration.

The complaint charges that the T did not properly measure the impact on low-income and minority riders prior to ending the service, which was launched in 2014 and became a target of the T’s board last year as it sought to rein in expenses.

However, in response to the complaint, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the FTA already gave the T approval for the service cut and the related equity analysis.

The T’s approach to the equity analysis has been a point of controversy since January, when MBTA Assistant General Manager Charles Planck said the agency would skip the civil rights analysis before shutting down late-night trains.

A month later, the board voted to cut the service without considering an analysis. That move drew sharp criticism from the FTA, which demanded the T complete the analysis to remain compliant with federal guidelines. The T eventually did so, and conducted the test using two different data sets.

One analysis, based on ridership data, suggested there would be a disparate impact on some users. Another test was based on the U.S. Census and said there would not be a disparate impact.

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T officials said the Census-based data was more reliable and that the agency did not need to mitigate the service cut. Late-night service’s last ride came on the early morning of March 19.

But in the federal complaint, the advocacy groups said the equity analysis based on Census data was conducted improperly. Rather than considering the impact of cutting service on each neighborhood, the T’s analysis was based on the impact on entire cities, according to the complaint.

“In other words, the same population was considered for a bus stop in Dorchester and Back Bay Station, neighborhoods with 77.8 percent minority and 21.8 percent minority population, respectively,” the complaint reads. “This use of overly broad population data allowed the MBTA to conclude that the cancellation of late-night service would have no disparate or disproportionate impact.”

According to the complaint, the FTA offers guidance to agencies for running equity analyses based on population data. The guideline says that kind of analysis should be based on the demographics of neighborhoods near transit stops, not entire cities.

If the T had followed that guideline, it would have indeed found that the cancellation would have an adverse impact on minority and low-income riders, according to a statistical analysis included within the complaint. As a result, the agency shouldn’t have ended the service without first implementing some kind of mitigating service for the populations affected by the cut, the complaint argues.

But Pesaturo, the MBTA spokesman, said the FTA has told the T it met the federal requirements for ending the service.

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“While the MBTA does not comment on pending litigation, the FTA has informed the MBTA that the equity analysis on late night service is properly documented and has met their requirements,” Pesaturo said. “Ensuring reliable, equitable service is a priority and the MBTA will continue to focus on improving the system’s reliability and consider service enhancements to improve equitable access for all our customers.”

A spokesman for the FTA said he would respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. In a letter sent in May, the FTA told the MBTA it had properly conducted the equity analysis.

The complaint does not aim to force the T to start running late-night service in its old form again. Instead, it calls on the agency to consider and implement an alternative service to blunt the impact of the cut.

A couple of ideas have already been proposed and are now under consideration by the T.

While T officials said they were not obligated to provide alternatives to the service cut when they ended the service in the winter, they did suggest “voluntary mitigation” ideas, which would increase the frequency of some early-morning and weekend bus routes that serve the affected populations.

Around the same time, another group of transit advocates proposed a more comprehensive idea that would see buses run overnight, every night, on an hourly basis. The T’s board has directed staff to look into the “all-nighter” idea, and has tabled the T’s proposed voluntary mitigation in the meantime.

Conservation Law Foundation Vice President Rafael Mares said implementing either the increased bus service or the all-nighter service could satisfy the complaint.

However, he said, studying and then starting either service would likely take time, so the agency should in the meantime implement a temporary mitigation measure.

The complaint also calls for a “meaningful public comment period” about how to minimize the impact of the late-night cancellation on the vulnerable populations.

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