The MBTA’s planned service cuts are getting real.
Despite outcry from transit advocates and riders, MBTA officials detailed the proposed cuts Monday that the agency is looking to implement next year to help close unprecedented budget shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including eliminating all ferry service, sweeping reductions to commuter rail service, and reduced frequency on its Green, Red, Orange, and Blue rapid transit lines.
The plans also consist of eliminating 25 bus routes and cutting short the Green Line’s E Branch.
Officials have tried to preserve “essential service,” where ridership is the highest and most transit dependent. According to the plan released Monday, about 82 percent of essential weekday trips are preserved. The MBTA also isn’t currently planning any fare increases.
Still, as expected, the cuts hit commuter rail and ferry service, where ridership has dropped the most since the onset of the pandemic, hard.
According to the plan, the T’s ferry service to Charlestown, Hull, and Hingham would be completely eliminated. Officials say ferry ridership is currently 12 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels — averaging seven passengers per boat — and that those who use the service can be diverted to alternative transit, like the 93 bus route or the Greenbush commuter rail line.
Commuter rail service, which is seeing 13 percent of its usual ridership, is also proposed to see deep cuts. Weekend service on all lines would be eliminated, though the Fairmount Line in Boston would be replaced by buses. Weekday service would be cut short around 9 p.m. (though closer to 10 p.m. on the Fairmount Line). Six of the network’s 141 stations would be closed: the Plimptonville stop in Walpole, Prides Crossing in Beverly, Silver Hill in Weston, Hastings in Weston, Plymouth, and Cedar Park in Melrose.
According to the plan, all commuter rail lines would see reduced peak and midday service, amounting to an overall reduction from 505 trains a day to 430 trains a day.
“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,” Steve Poftak, the MBTA’s general manager, said in a video message Monday.
The T’s Green, Red, Orange, and Blue lines would see an overall 20 percent reduction in frequency, though the change would differ depending on the time and line.
For example, the plan calls for the Red Line to run trains every five-and-a-half minutes during rush hour, compared to the usual four-minute headways. During off-peak hours, the line would run at eight-and-a-half minute frequencies. During rush hour, the Green Line would run at a minimum of nine-and-a-half minute frequencies, the Orange Line would run every eight-and-a-half minutes, and the Blue Line would run at six-minute headways. The Mattapan trolley would see headways at six minutes.
All lines would also stop service at midnight, compared to the current 1 a.m. stop time. The Green Line’s E Branch would also terminate six stops early at Brigham Circle, though riders could still transfer to the 39 bus route the rest of the way to Heath Street.
Across the Red, Orange, Blue, and underground Green Line stations, ridership remains just a quarter of its pre-COVID-19 numbers.
Meanwhile, the MBTA’s bus system is at roughly 40 percent of its usual ridership. While the system overall would operate at 85 percent of its usual levels, the impact would vary by route and time of day. All service would stop at midnight.
Officials say that essential routes — like the 111, 116/117, and 109 — would only see a 5 percent reduction in service.
About 25 routes that have seen sparse ridership during the pandemic would be eliminated. As a map published Monday by the MBTA illustrates, many of the routes that are proposed to be eliminated are regional express bus routes. However, a few inner core routes, such as the 43, 55, 68, and 72, are also among them.
Seven of the potentially eliminated routes are within a quarter-mile of another bus or rapid transit line, according to the MBTA, while another six have “very low ridership” and “significant, but not fully alternative options.” The 12 other routes that are proposed to be eliminated serve non-transit critical, low ridership trips, which are the least prioritized under the MBTA’s approach to the cuts.
An additional 10 or so routes would either be consolidated or restructured, according to the plan.
Officials say some of the cuts to the commuter rail and ferry would be phased in as soon as January, while the changes to rapid transit and bus service would not come until spring and summer, respectively. Kat Benesh, the T’s chief of operations, policy, and oversight, said Monday that the first cuts would likely begin with the elimination of commuter rail weekend service in January.
While the MBTA did receive some financial aid from the federal coronavirus relief package passed last spring, officials estimate that the agency will face a budget deficit of close to $600 million in the next budget year, due to the extraordinary drop off in fare revenue. Poftak said in his video message that the T has been running “roughly the same level of service” as it did before the pandemic, despite only serving roughly a quarter of the riders.
“This level of service delivery, along with the loss in revenue, is not sustainable,” Poftak said, adding that the T continues to pursue additional federal funds as well as other smaller measures of raising revenue and cutting costs.
The MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board will vote on finalizing the proposed cuts after a public comment period at its next meeting on Dec. 7.
During a FMCB meeting Monday afternoon, Poftak also stressed that the cuts do not amount to a “permanent shrinkage” and that officials hope to “build back” service when revenue eventually returns.
Still, the difficult cuts are a setback for the MBTA’s recent and continuing work to improve and expand the transit system. The agency has faced a flood of pushback from advocates, elected officials, and riders opposing the cuts, though officials say they effectively have no choice, if state or federal lawmakers to do not act to provide additional financial relief.
“The MBTA needs to continue to take proactive measures now to close the projected gap that is rapidly approaching,” Poftak said.
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