MBTA officials have tried to take some of the edge off their recently proposed — and seemingly inevitable — service cuts, needed to offset unprecedented revenue losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the assurance that they aren’t forever.
“The service reductions are not intended to be a permanent shrinkage,” MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said during a meeting last week.
While the sweeping cuts will be painful in the near term, the idea is to “build back” service when ridership eventually rebounds, he said.
Transit advocates say it may not be that simple.
They worry that, by making the service less attractive, the proposed plan — which includes widespread cuts to the commuter rail and bus networks and a 20 percent reduction in rapid transit frequencies — could permanently drive riders away from the transit system and send MBTA revenue into a long-term “death spiral.”
“If you cut late-night service on the T now, then those folks are going to buy a car, start using Uber and Lyft, or get their friend to take them — and they’re not gonna come back when the service comes back,” Jarred Johnson, the executive director of Transit Matters, said in a recent interview.
“No one’s going to go to the commuter rail platform and wave their hands up and down Saturday at 11 to signal to the T that they want that weekend service back after they cut it,” he said. “Those folks will make a decision, probably in the form of a car, and then once you have that, that’s a sunk cost.”
In addition to reduced service across the system, the proposed cuts — which the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board will vote on next month — include eliminating commuter rail service on weekends and after 9 p.m. on weeknights, halting all ferry service, eliminating or consolidating several dozen bus routes, cutting short T service at midnight, and stopping trolleys on the Green Line’s E branch six stops early at Brigham Circle.
Despite the MBTA’s pre-pandemic efforts to improve and expand many parts of the system, Johnson says the latest proposal recalls previous contractions that weren’t necessarily billed as permanent changes — though ended up to be just that.
The Green Line E branch used to extend past Heath Street to Arborway Station, effectively connecting riders to the Orange Line through the nearby Forest Hills Station. However, that stretch of the line was “temporarily suspended” due to construction work in 1986 and ultimately permanently replaced by bus service.
Under the MBTA’s recently proposed cuts, E branch riders would similarly be diverted to a concurrent bus route beginning at Brigham Circle.
A similar scenario played out with the Green Line’s so-called A branch trolley to Watertown, which was eliminated in 1969 after the expansion of the Mass. Pike into Boston. According to a Boston Globe report at the time, the trolley line — with support from most riders — was replaced by buses for a “trial” period and of course never returned.
“The history has been that it takes a long time to reverse these kinds of service changes,” Johnson said, adding that the cuts threaten to undermine Gov. Charlie Baker’s efforts to increase transit-oriented housing development in the region.
MBTA officials aren’t unaware of the concerns — and they’re in the midst of a process, including an open hearing Thursday, to get public feedback on the proposed cuts.
Poftak told Boston.com in a statement that the MBTA will work to incorporate the feedback related to both the cuts and restoring service based on “whether there is ridership that justifies the service and durable revenue available to pay for such additional service.”
“The MBTA is carrying out a comprehensive outreach process as it wants public feedback and will take it seriously,” he said.
The agency also created a framework intended to preserve, as much as possible, service on the lines and routes with high, transit-dependent ridership. But without more funding, Poftak says the current level of service isn’t sustainable.
While the agency has sought additional government funds to close the budget gap, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has suggested it might “make sense” to move forward with the cuts, even with a federal bailout, in order to save the money for when they do need to increase service.
“The question is, if you got the federal package this spring but were still seeing 25 or 30 percent of the pre-COVID ridership, whether it would make sense to immediately add service or whether it would make sense to hold onto those federal dollars until we need it for more ridership,” Pollack said during the FMCB meeting last week.
The fear among transit advocates is that making that decision now might hurt the chances of ridership rebounding later next year, when the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is hopefully over. According to the MBTA’s plan, some commuter rail cuts would take effect as soon as January, while changes to ferry service and rapid transit would be implemented in March and bus service adjustments wouldn’t happen until June.
Johnson says that Pollack is a “pretty smart person, but I don’t think she’s developed the powers of being able to predict the future.”
Chris Dempsey, the director of Transportation for Massachusetts, said last week on GBH’s “Greater Boston” that “nobody is advocating for the MBTA to run empty trains and buses.”
“We all want the system to be more efficient,” he said. “But some of these lines, once you cut them; some of these employees, once you lay them off; they never come back. And what we’re left with is a region where, as the economy does start to come back and people start to get back to work, more and more people are driving on the road, fewer people are taking transit, and [traffic congestion] is even worse than it was.”
According to the MBTA presentation last week, rehiring employees alone could take two years.
Some progressive state lawmakers have pushed for tax hikes aimed at the state’s richest residents to provide more MBTA funding, given the “K-shaped” economic trend in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The 19 billionaires in our state saw their wealth balloon by $17 billion during the first three months of the pandemic,” Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said during a hearing last week, arguing for an unsuccessful budget measure to raise revenue for the T. “This is unusual. Usually during a recession, even billionaires lose money. Not this time.”
As the outcry across the region has grown, Dempsey said that state lawmakers should “step up” to help the MBTA avoid lasting damage.
“We want to make sure that the MBTA isn’t cutting so deeply that we will perpetually have a system that’s a fraction of the size that it once was,” he said.
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