MBTA Late-Night Bus Trips Will Become Permanent

MBTA Commuters board the 17 bus to Fields Corner. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
MBTA Commuters board the 17 bus to Fields Corner. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

About 150 nighttime bus trips per week introduced as a pilot in and around Boston will become a permanent feature on the MBTA, but the T will no longer offer service after 1 a.m. after officials cited insufficient ridership and high costs.

The MBTA plans to continue to offer greater frequency on key bus routes between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m., and several lines will see final trips past 12:30 a.m., two components of a pilot that drew thousands of riders. Most of the trips involve Boston neighborhoods and communities north of the city such as Chelsea, Revere, Malden and Everett.

The decision was solidified with a 3-0 vote by the T's oversight board Monday.

"This is a fabulous piece of work that really provides a service for those that are transit-dependent," said Fiscal and Management Control Board Chair Joseph Aiello.

About 120 trips — the largest chunk of the pilot — will be added to existing routes in the 10 p.m. to midnight category. Another 30 to 40 will push back the last trip on certain routes into the early-morning hours.

So-called "late night spine" trips offered between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. did not draw nearly as much use as the other parts of the pilot, and given that each trip in that range had an operating subsidy of more than $16 per trip — more than triple the other overnight pilot categories — the board decided it was not worth the cost.

"We put a pilot in place according to the process," MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak told reporters. "We didn't get the ridership we thought we'd get."

Three out of four parts of the overnight pilot are now enshrined as permanent MBTA policy following a December 2018 vote to continue "early bird" bus trips starting at 4 a.m. Resources that had been dedicated to the "late night spine" portion of the overnight pilot will be redirected into the other components of the program.

By cutting trips after 1 a.m., though, the MBTA once again limits its late-night options for commuters. After roughly two years of extending weekend subway trips until 2 a.m., the T pulled the plug in 2016, citing upwards of $10 million per year in savings.

Advocates who have long pushed for better overnight mobility options urged the board to keep options in place, describing it as a crucial for workers in hospitality, food service and other fields that have shifted hours.

"Boston is a 24-hour city, and our transit system should provide options for travelers, especially those coming home from work late in the evening or early in the morning," said Matt Moran, director of the City of Boston's transit team. "We understand that late-night bus service may not have drawn the ridership we'd hoped. However, there might be reasons for this because people clearly are out and about early in the morning."

Moran asked the board to work with city officials to determine exactly why the latest attempt at post-1 a.m. service did not draw enough use — perhaps because of insufficient marketing — and to take another pass at a similar program in the future.

Asked by reporters if the MBTA was formally turning its back on offering around-the-clock service, Poftak said he did not believe that was the case.

"We're committed to addressing demand where we see it," Poftak said. "We're going to reallocate resources to deal with demand where there's crowding on later buses. The T's ready to address demand wherever it occurs, particularly on the bus system, within our resources. So I wouldn't use the verb you're using."

The MBTA's board on Monday also reopened a process to accept pilot program proposals that will allow municipalities and other groups to propose test versions of service changes. A draft schedule discussed at Monday's meeting indicated that proposals would be accepted over the summer with pilots to begin by fall 2020, and members will receive an update on the process next month.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the MBTA's Fiscal and Management Control Board delayed a final vote on re-opening a process to accept pilot program proposals. The board agreed without voting to re-open the program.

This article was originally published on June 03, 2019.



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