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MBTA officials tip toe into what future service cuts would actually mean

"The public is going to have to deal with a lot of really, really bad news."

A sign encouraging MBTA riders to socially distance at South Station in Boston. Erin Clark / The Boston Globe

MBTA officials are facing a lot of unknowns over the coming years.

How long will the COVID-19 pandemic endure? When will ridership return to its pre-coronavirus levels? Will ridership return to its pre-coronavirus levels?

But one thing leadership at the agency is beginning to embrace with certainty is that remedying a projected nine-figure budget hole  — largely the result of an unprecedented drop in riders due to the pandemic — will necessitate service cuts.

During a meeting Monday afternoon of the agency’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, they discussed what type of tradeoffs may be necessary as they forge ahead with planned improvements and a focus on preserving essential service.

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“If we want to preserve or even improve some parts of the system, it will make it worse for someone else,” Kat Benesh, the MBTA’s chief of operations strategy, policy, and oversight, said during the meeting Monday. “Something has to give.”

To guide their approach, MBTA officials divided the agency’s various services and lines — subway, bus, commuter rail, ferry — into four categories based on respective ridership levels and what percentage of that ridership are “transit critical populations,” defined as low-income, people of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and no-to-low-vehicle households.

According to Benesh, the service that could see the “most severe reductions” are lines with relatively low ridership and less critical riders. And while the agency is still far from identifying specific cuts on specific lines, the presentation Monday suggested that certain commuter rail lines and express bus routes would fall into that category.

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Hypothetically, cuts could entail “short-turning” more trains on commuter rail lines that have lower ridership at the outer stations, in order to maintain higher frequencies closer to Boston, according to Benesh.

“We don’t have to treat entire lines the same way,” she said.

However, bus routes with low, less critical ridership could be entirely eliminated.

In contrast, MBTA officials said they would work to preserve access along routes with high levels of transit-critical riders. On lines with relatively low ridership, that means the agency would only reduce or eliminate service on bus routes if there are alternatives within a half-mile. Benesh said the aim would be to ensure riders have the option of walking five minutes longer to a subway line or bus route with more frequent service.

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“This way, the riders still have high quality access, but it may be a slightly different form of access,” she said. “And to be transparent, we recognize up front that this might also require additional transfers or paying a rapid transit fare. But the intent is trying to do the least harm as possible, while not degrading service everywhere.”

Benesh said they had still yet to define the MBTA’s “essential service” but plan to conduct an analysis doing so for the FMCB’s meeting on Oct. 5.

The presentation outlined that lines with both high ridership and high levels of transit-dependent riders would be where officials seek to preserve and perhaps even improve service. Still, using the MBTA subway lines as an illustrative example, officials suggested those lines could still see reductions in frequency during weekends or off-peak hours.

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Benesh also pointed to the MBTA’s commuter ferry between Boston, Hingham, and Hull as an example of service with high ridership but low transit-critical users, who could switch to driving or taking the commuter rail.

“It is definitely not low income or minority, and there’s only about one-third of zero-to-one car households,” she said adding that many of those passengers would face only a five to 15 minute drive to the Greenbush commuter rail line if ferry service was “reduced or eliminated.”

In many cases, Benesh stressed that officials face “policy decisions with no right answers.”

Officials say they expect to face an overall budget deficit of $308 million to $577 million in the 2022 fiscal year, which begins next July. According to the presentation Monday, they’re looking for between $60 million and $255 million in service cuts, depending on the overall budget scenario.

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MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said during the meeting that they’re hoping to hold at least an initial vote on the ultimate plan by December.

The MBTA’s challenges are hardly unique; due to the pandemic, major metropolitan transit agencies across the country are facing budget shortfalls of several hundred million — if not, in the case of New York’s MTA, several billion —  dollars in the coming years, assuming they get no additional federal relief.

Transit advocates have stressed that the issues illustrate the need for additional emergency government support. And last week, Poftak joined a number of his peers from across the country in a news conference calling for more federal assistance, as The Boston Globe reported. While the T did receive financial aid from the CARES Act last spring, officials expect that money to run out by next summer.

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“We’re faced with making these tough decisions,” Poftak said, according to the Globe. “What we need is a federal government that will help us — that will help us sustain our service, that will help us rebuild our communities, that will help us get people where we need to go.”

The agency is also looking to make up lost revenue through reallocating funds from capital projects and various administration cost saving efforts.

During the meeting Monday, FMCB members emphasized that they would like to make any such service cuts with minimal effects on fare prices.

“The public is going to have to deal with a lot of really, really bad news,” Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the board’s vice chair, said. “And if we can try and at least minimize that financial impact, I think that that would be ideal.”

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FMCB Chair Joe Aiello even suggested more “experimentation” with lower commuter rail fare prices — similar to their ongoing Lynn pilot program — targeted toward gateway cities like Brockton or Lowell in the hopes of perhaps increasing revenue through increased ridership in areas where it is currently low.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack cautioned that they should first study how effective such financial incentives or subsidies — if they can afford it — would even be, given the shift toward working from home.

“We just need to be careful because we’re not in a moment yet where pricing is the only factor affecting the mode,” Pollack said. “Because right now, if the mode is not having to travel to the office, it doesn’t really matter what it costs to travel to the office.”

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Given the concerns about post-pandemic traffic, Tibbits-Nutt said the MBTA would have to get “creative” around fare or parking prices. Still, given the uncertainty about when riders will actually return, Pollack said it was imperative to prepare the “painful” plans for what to do if “the ridership is not there no matter what we do”

“Which services are we trying to preserve and which services are we willing to sacrifice?” she said.

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