MBTA OFFICIALS indicated on Monday that they are preparing to back off some of their proposed service cuts because of feedback from the public and changing budget conditions.
No specifics were provided, but the officials indicated they may withdraw proposals to eliminate certain types of service entirely or at specific times. For example, the T’s original proposal called for eliminating all ferry service; now the T appears to be considering offering some form of limited ferry service. Decisions to eliminate some bus routes, late-night bus service, late-night rapid transit service, weekday commuter rail service after 9 p.m., and weekend commuter rail service could also be revisited.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the feedback the T received at a series of public meetings over the last month indicate riders are willing to adapt to less service but not willing to do without service entirely. She characterized the public’s attitude as: “Please give us some service and then bring it back when you can.”
Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, said Hull was dramatically affected by the T’s initial service cut proposal, which would have eliminated ferry service to the community as well as the 714 bus.
“The idea of being completely cut off is really terrifying,” said Tibbits-Nutt.
Pollack said the feedback the agency received also indicated the public was skeptical that service eliminated during the pandemic would ever be restored even though the MBTA has said repeatedly that service would be restored as the economy and ridership improve. “We have a credibility problem with our riders,” Pollack said.
Kat Benesh, chief of operations strategy, policy, and oversight, said she plans to present a new service cut proposal to the Fiscal and Management Control Board next Monday that will restore some services that had been on the chopping block and also lay out a plan to prioritize restoration of services if the T’s financial situation improves next year.
In her presentation to the control board, Benesh said the new service cut proposal would attempt to address the elimination of bus routes that strand higher numbers of current riders, municipalities that stand to lose all MBTA service (T officials said only Hull falls in that category), and second and third shift medical workers with no way to get to and from work.
The T’s budget situation is very fluid right now. The agency is covering its losses this year with $605 million in federal stimulus aid, but the T is currently projecting a budget gap of $577 million to $652 million in fiscal 2022, which begins July 1. A month ago the T was projecting a budget gap of $579 million.
The T is currently planning to cover the budget gap by taking five steps: moving employees working on capital projects on to the capital budget and paying them with federal funds or borrowed money; diverting federal funds set aside for capital projects to shorter-term maintenance initiatives that would typically be paid for out of the operating budget; implementing internal revenue initiatives; approving service cuts; and squirreling away money this year to plug holes in next year’s budget.
The budget numbers have been a moving target over the last month. A month ago service cuts were projected to save $128 million to $142 million, but now the T is saying cuts of $94 million to $98 million are needed. The T is also building contingencies into its budget planning for next year that might free up millions of dollars more to reduce the level of service cuts. Several members of the Fiscal and Management Control Board said they would favor that.
Other variables could also have an impact on the T’s discussion. Congress is weighing another stimulus plan that could benefit transit agencies and COVID-19 vaccines will start to be rolled out next week. “There is room for a little more optimism,” said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak.
T officials and members of the control board are clearly feeling the heat from the public and other elected officials.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh started off the day with a press conference where he warned the control board not to ignore the public outcry. “They need to listen. They better listen,” Walsh said. “These cuts are simply wrong. They will hurt workers. They will discourage ridership. They would hurt our recovery.”
Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu was even more strident. “The push to dismantle public transportation should be remembered as one of the biggest failures of the Baker administration,” she said in a statement.
Gov. Charlie Baker, at a State House press conference, shrugged off calls for more state revenue to prevent transit cuts. “Raising taxes to run more empty buses and trains is a bad idea,” he said.
Jim Rooney, the president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter to Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board, urging the panel to delay any service cuts until the T’s budget picture becomes more clear. He said a federal stimulus package and the imminent arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine suggest a lot could change over the next six to nine months.
Rooney also said the Chamber of Commerce supports additional revenue for transportation and the MBTA, including temporary transfers from the state’s general fund and money raised from higher fees on rideshares and higher taxes on gasoline.
Rooney also drew a contrast between spending by the state (the state budget sitting on Baker’s desk calls for a 6.5 percent increase in spending) and spending by the T. “Strikingly, we are halfway through fiscal 2021 with virtually no major reductions in state general fund spending compared to fiscal 2020,” he wrote. “It is important that the FMCB not prematurely send a message that public transportation is among the lowest priorities for the state next year without engaging in a discussion with the Legislature.”