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MBTA Late-Night Service Begins March 28

BOSTON — Nine years after ending its Night Owl bus program due to low ridership, the MBTA is again set to experiment with late-night service.

The new late-night service will begin on March 28. The one-year pilot program will run all subway lines, the Silver Line and 15 of the T’s busiest bus routes until 3 a.m. on weekends.

Officials on Thursday announce the March 28 start date for the MBTA's late-night pilot program. (MBTA via Twitter)

Officials on Thursday announce the March 28 start date for the MBTA’s late-night pilot program. (MBTA via Twitter)

Gov. Deval Patrick and transportation officials announced the pilot program’s start date Thursday morning in Kendall Square. State officials had previously revealed that the program would begin this spring.

The program will cost about $16-17 million for the year, according to the MBTA, mostly in the form of salaries for T employees.

“We’ve had to do some hiring so that we could in fact wind up being able to support the service,” MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott said Wednesday. “So that’s going to be the operators that you see, but also our service personnel, our maintenance personnel.”

The MBTA does not plan to break even on the pilot program.

“If we were probably somewhere at the end of the day around 30 percent in terms of cost recovery, that would be doing pretty doggone well,” Scott said.

To make up the difference, the plan relies on funding from the state, as well as from corporate sponsorships.

One of those sponsors is the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. Its president, Bob Luz, says the service is crucial, not only for his patrons, but also for his employees.

“Our establishments don’t necessarily stay open until last call,” he said. “So even folks that are getting off at 11 or 12 often have obstacles getting home. So making sure they can get home safely and economically is a great, great thing for them.”

Trains will run largely on a weekend schedule, Scott said, with trains arriving every 10 to 15 minutes.

Officials say support for the plan is overwhelming. Some 26,000 people responded to a rider survey last year, with nearly all in favor of extending the T’s operating hours.

More than half said they’d be willing to pay extra for late-night service.

The question is whether that support will translate into use. The T’s last crack at running late, an all-bus service called the Night Owl, was discontinued in 2005 due to lack of ridership.

But state Transportation Secretary Richard Davey says the addition of subway service, along with smartphone apps that track arrival times, will be the difference.

“With technology today, us standing here, we can figure out exactly when the next bus is coming, when the next Red Line train is coming,” he said. “So that kind of certainty I think will really make this a successful launch this time.”

Not everyone is in favor of the plan. By running trains later, the T cuts down on the number of hours it can repair the more than 100-year-old system.

Others call it a “cosmetic fix.” They say rather than straining the system to run an extra four hours a week, the MBTA should instead be shooting for 24-hour service.

Scott says the T has adjusted its maintenance schedule to handle the reduced time for repairs.

And as for 24-hour service, she says that’s the eventual goal, but it’s still a long way off, and would require a major investment in manpower and infrastructure.

“It’s all doable, but let’s go ahead and paint what that picture would be,” she said. “Because if you never do it, then you begin to bite off of it, I call it like Pac-Man: you don’t try to eat the elephant all at one time!”

The first step, she says, is making sure there are enough riders to justify the extra two hours on the weekend.

According to the state, the 15 late-night bus routes will be: 1, 15, 22, 23, 28, 32, 39, 57, 66, 71, 73, 77, 111, 116 and 117.

Thursday’s announcement comes days after Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said he’s appointing a late-night task force, with an eye toward extended closing hours for some nightspots.

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