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MBTA Shows Signs Of Softening On Service Cuts

Steve Poftak, General Manager of the MBTA, holds a press conference in the lobby of the Ashmont Red Line station in Boston's Dorchester on June 22, 2020. (Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Steve Poftak, General Manager of the MBTA, holds a press conference in the lobby of the Ashmont Red Line station in Boston's Dorchester on June 22, 2020. (Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The package of service cuts that the MBTA's board plans to vote on next week will not be as steep as the original proposal, officials said Monday, after a wave of public feedback aimed particularly at the most drastic changes.

One week away from the Fiscal and Management Control Board's crucial decision, it is not yet clear what proposed cuts remain on the table and which will be scrapped. But with Gov. Charlie Baker making a forceful case against maintaining the status quo amid the pandemic, a major change at the T appears inevitable.

Officials are still drafting the final package they will submit to the board for a vote on Dec. 14. While they did not offer clear details Monday, they said the proposal will maintain more service than an earlier draft proposal that drew widespread criticism from elected officials, labor leaders and transit advocates.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak also appeared to suggest Monday morning that the agency punt some of the service decisions until February, when the T will formally start its budget process for the fiscal year 2022.

"This is an incredibly dynamic and rapidly developing situation," Poftak said. "We are continuing to track information around vaccination and the timing of vaccination. Even relative to three or four days ago, I think there is more optimism around a federal stimulus bill. However, we've lived through this throughout the fall, with the potential for stimulus and having it fall apart."

"I've made the following request of staff and I make the following recommendation to the board: that we defer the presentation of the initial round of potential service reductions to next week's meeting, that we continue to work with our labor stakeholders to determine the best ways to reduce costs and preserve the resiliency of the MBTA, and that we potentially defer some decisions on service to the FY22 budget process where it's feasible for us to have that flexibility," Poftak said.

Neither Poftak nor any other T employee elaborated on the possible delay during the board meeting.

Asked which service decisions would be postponed from the Monday vote, an MBTA spokesperson replied that Poftak "was referring to staff making recommendations on how to prioritize service packages to add back (or) restore service once ridership and revenue return," adding that the GM is "currently envisioning that these packages be included as a component of the FY22 budget development process."

MBTA officials proposed the cuts, estimated as saving about $112 million, as one part of a strategy to reduce costs amid a pandemic-fueled budget crunch estimated at roughly $584 million in FY22.

The T is still running pre-pandemic levels of service, but only transporting slightly more than a quarter as many customers — and therefore collecting far less fare revenue — than before COVID hit.

"I think running empty trains and buses, as a general rule, is bad public policy," Baker said at a Monday press conference when asked about the MBTA. "I think making sure you have a system that actually serves the people who want to ride it, when they want to ride it, the way they want to ride it is the right way to go. And I think the fact that the T's using this as an opportunity to continue to make billion-dollar investments in their core system to modernize it and improve it so that when we get past all this we have a much better infrastructure on which the system can run than the one we have now as their primary focus is exactly the right thing to do."

"And I also think the decision to say that we just can't run empty trains and empty buses over and over and over again is a perfectly appropriate response," Baker added.

The original plan for cuts included eliminating weekend commuter rail service, closing 25 bus routes, halting some ferries, and scaling back subway frequency.

A consistent theme in public comments, T staff said Monday, was that riders are understanding of the need to trim service amid a period of low ridership but do not want the agency to wipe out stretches of bus, rail or ferry entirely.

Where feasible, the updated package will prioritize "access and span" — the T's language for, scaling back rather than eliminating altogether, according to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack — in its changes to the original cuts.

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"We heard a lot of skepticism about the return to service," Pollack said. "We have a credibility problem with our riders. If you provide less service but some service, it's a lot easier for people to believe that's a temporary state and that we'll add more service when we can, but if you take it all away, which is what the access changes do, that's when people get the most concern that it's never coming back."

Opponents have warned that scaling back MBTA transit, even with promises to restore service once demand returns, could have myriad negative consequences, from shifting more commuters onto already-clogged roads to increasing crowding and COVID-19 risks.

At a Monday morning press conference, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh demanded transit officials and the Legislature work together to find a financial bandage, voicing support for increasing taxes to help close the gap.

"The bottom line here is that these cuts are just simply wrong," Walsh said outside the Government Center T station. "They would hurt workers, they would discourage ridership, they would slow our recovery, they would create a bigger problem down the road."

While fare hikes are not on the table at the moment, T leaders have said the proposal under consideration will result in layoffs without specifying how many.

A new report from the labor-backed Public Transit Public Good coalition put a clear estimate on the impact: more than 800 jobs lost at the MBTA.

The largest chunk, about 350 workers, would be operators and drivers of the T's buses and subway lines.

That would have a disproportionate impact on communities of color, according to the report. About 60% of MBTA operators are people of color, and many live in communities — including Boston neighborhoods such as Dorchester — with some of the highest COVID-19 positivity rates.

"These people have suffered the greatest losses during the pandemic, and it's unfair to ask them to suffer even greater loss," said Mike Vartabedian, assistant directing business representative of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 15. "The brave workers we represent are essential workers. They have risked getting infected by this terrible virus and have often brought it home and infected their families. They're now facing losing their jobs and health care during a pandemic."

The new report also argues that the T could find itself on the hook for millions of dollars in unemployment benefits as a result of the job cuts, wiping away a portion of the savings officials hope to realize by changing service.

A key uncertainty hanging over the transit landscape is the future of commuting. Many white-collar jobs have shifted to remote work during the COVID-19 era, and it is unclear how many of them will continue to embrace working from home and to what degree once a vaccine is widely available.

For now, though, many regional business groups stand alongside opponents of the service cuts.

Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce President James Rooney urged the Fiscal and Management Control Board to delay its vote on service cuts "as long as possible" until the public health, economic and commuting outlooks become clearer.

Rooney said he views some changes, such as eliminating a handful of stops and increasing the gaps between commuter rail trains, as reasonable, but he cautioned against deeming public transit "among the lowest priorities for the state next year without engaging in a discussion with the Legislature."

"The MBTA's service levels must be ready to adapt to demand for service, not drive the demand," Rooney wrote in a letter to the board. "A prolonged period of reduced service — especially if it lags the return to work and more — risks permanent losses for MBTA ridership as riders shift to single occupancy vehicles."

The Chamber supports increasing fees on ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, a higher gasoline tax, and temporarily transferring state money from the general fund to the T to maintain operations, Rooney said.

A Better City, another coalition of business groups, voiced its own opposition to the roughly $112 million in service cuts, writing in a December report that the cuts "would come at a high price to riders, the public transit system itself, and the economic recovery of the region."

"Countless members of the workforce count on the transit system to come into Boston and the urban core and to travel throughout the metropolitan region every single day," Rick Dimino, the group's president, said at the press conference alongside Walsh.

This article was originally published on December 07, 2020.

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