STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
THE MBTA will receive at least $250 million in federal funding under the latest COVID-19 stimulus package, but agency officials plan to move forward with most of their planned service cuts and direct most of the new money toward the capital budget.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said Monday that the T expects to get somewhere roughly between $250 million and $300 million in additional support, up to $17 million of which will go toward bumping service back up on high-ridership bus routes and maintaining evening commuter rail service.
Despite calls from activists and lawmakers to change course with the federal aid — plus a $52 million upgrade in the T’s state sales tax revenue outlook — the agency plans otherwise to “proceed with a majority of service changes” that the Fiscal and Management Control Board approved in December, Poftak said.
The T will use up to $178 million from the latest federal injection to replenish the MBTA’s capital budget, he said, after officials transferred out about $460 million to help cope with a massive projected deficit inflicted by the pandemic.
That money will mostly be allocated in the spring, and Poftak said officials have already decided to revive work on the Winchester Center Station, which had been designed but was paused in the cost-cutting efforts.
Any stimulus money left over will be saved until fiscal year 2022 and used to bring back service at that point “when we have the ridership and the demand, or at least the expectation of that demand,” Poftak said. “When we’re ready to serve those customers, we will have a source of funding to restore that service.”
Key details about the federal package and its impacts remain uncertain. Poftak said the T is waiting for additional guidance from federal agencies that will dictate exactly how much funding it gets this round, and officials have not yet determined which bus lines will get additional service as a result.
Officials have also offered little information about workforce impacts despite saying for months that layoffs are on the table. Asked during Monday’s board meeting about staffing levels, Poftak replied that he could not offer a definitive answer until the T finalizes the updated bus and transit schedules for the spring.
“We are still in the process of developing what the schedules look like,” he said. “The places with the biggest impact on staffing would be bus and rapid transit, so I don’t have anything declarative on that right now. We’re still determining what the game plan is in terms of as we plan service and as we control headcount.”
The T Board previously approved its service cut plans on a 3-2 vote. Baker administration officials have been hesitant to keep service running on full schedules while ridership is a fraction of pre-pandemic levels, and have said they would aim to keep additional federal aid as a reserve to help boost service once greater demand emerges.
In a December statement shortly after Congress approved the relief package, the Transit is Essential coalition called for the MBTA to undo the planned elimination of 20 bus routes, service frequency cuts on the subway, and the shuttering of weekend commuter rail service.
“People across the region continue to rely on transit to make essential trips,” the coalition said. “Reduced service means less access to frontline jobs, health care appointments, grocery stores, and other destinations that people must visit in the midst of this pandemic, as well as increased risk of dangerous crowding on those trips.”
The first cuts aimed at ferries and commuter rail, including elimination of weekend service on seven commuter rail lines, will hit later this month. Changes impacting buses and rapid transit are slated to start in March, just before state government plans to broadly open up access to the COVID-19 vaccine in April.
T officials announced the scope of the commuter rail changes last week and outlined the ferry plans on Monday. Under the new schedule that takes effect January 23, the MBTA will shutter the Charlestown and Hingham ferries. The Hingham/Hull ferry will run only during weekdays on a reduced schedule.