THE MBTA’S OVERSIGHT BOARD on Monday approved two, year-long pilot projects expanding the transit authority’s operations – one that adds limited, early morning buses to help workers start into work in Boston as early as 4 a.m. and the other extending daily commuter rail service between South Station and Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
The Fiscal and Management Control Board has been wary of expanding the MBTA’s operations, even on a temporary basis, at a time when the authority is struggling to pare back spending and improve existing service. That reluctance surfaced repeatedly as the members pressed for more data on the pilot projects from T staff, added caveats to their two approvals, and put a third pilot on hold until a more concrete proposal for expanded bus service from 1 a.m. to either 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. can be developed.
The control board voted unanimously for the early morning bus service pilot, with a start date of spring 2018. But the board failed to reach its typical consensus on the Foxborough pilot, with Monica Tibbits-Nutt voting no even after a series of caveats were added to the proposal to make it more palatable. Sources said the Baker administration applied heavy pressure to win approval for the Foxborough pilot.
Tibbits-Nutt said the pilot was sold by the Baker administration and the Kraft Group as an economic development play, a way to bring workers from Boston out to fill jobs offered by future and existing employers in the area around Gillette Stadium. However, she noted, the train schedule for the pilot was designed primarily to bring commuters from the Foxborough area into Boston and it was unlikely additional trains could be added in the future because of track constraints at South Station.
The proposed schedule for the Foxborough pilot offers three trains from Foxborough to South Station in the early morning but only one going the other way at 6:24 a.m. The schedule features three trains going from South Station to Foxborough between 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. and none going the other way after 1:25 p.m.
“I’m confused about who we’re trying to serve here,” Tibbits-Nutt said. “I just don’t think this project makes a lot of sense.”
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack acknowledged there was little or no opportunity for reverse commutes, where workers head to the suburbs for jobs in the morning and return to Boston at night. But she said the project would put people in the seats of trains that have extremely low ridership right now.
The pilot would extend to Foxborough eight Fairmount Line trains that currently run between South Station and Readville and one train on the Franklin Line. Ridership on those trains is low right now, with just 38 percent of the seats filled on the lone Franklin Line train to South Station. One Fairmount Line train, running from South Station to Readville, fills only 1 percent of the 948 seats.
T officials say extending service to Foxborough will not affect existing service on the Fairmount or Franklin Lines. They say the pilot would cost an estimated $1.2 million and attract 160 net new riders. With an estimated $459,000 from ticket and parking revenue and a subsidy from the Kraft Group that could run as high as $217,000, the net cost to the T would be $524,000.
Control board members Joseph Aiello and Lisa Calise voted for the pilot, but only after asking a lot of questions and adding caveats to the approval. Aiello pushed for a low fare on service between South Station and Foxborough to attract more riders and pressed for answers on whether connecting bus service would be offered from the station to area employers.
Aiello also objected to the fact that the Kraft Group’s financial contribution to the project would be capped at $217,000, while the T’s financial commitment would be open-ended if ridership failed to materialize. He said he wanted the T and the Kraft Group to share in covering any unforeseen losses. The Kraft Group is also donating 500 parking spaces at Gillette Stadium to the T during the pilot.
Pollack suggested it would be unfair to require the Kraft Group to kick in more money while not asking the communities of Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, and Revere to pony up more money if the early morning bus service runs over-budget. Aiello said he would have no problem in asking the communities to share the burden of any cost-overruns on the early morning bus service pilot.
Calise and others on the control board said it may be difficult to judge the effectiveness of the Foxborough pilot because its goal of 160 new riders is so small. She and Aiello told T officials they must survey ridership at all commuter rail stations in the area before and after the pilot to determine how many riders are new and how many are just migrating from one line to another. Parking at many of the commuter rail stations in the area is scarce.
The early morning bus service pilot gained approval fairly swiftly, in part because the T already has data indicating demand would be strong for the service. Officials said they would add 67 additional bus trips on 12 bus routes (Numbers 16, 19, 31, 32, 65, 70, 104, 109, 117, and 455), which are standing-room-only now when service starts at 5 a.m.
T officials said adding the routes would cost $500,000, offset partially by $62,000 in new fare revenue. The officials also said they planned to promote the new service with an $80,000 marketing campaign.
By starting MBTA service an hour earlier, the transit authority is also required to start its paratransit service an hour earlier, which would cost the T about $500,000 for the year. T officials acknowledge few people would use the service, which is called the RIDE, but say they are compelled by law to offer service to handicapped riders whenever standard service is available.
A third pilot project, calling for expanded bus service between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. to help employees who work late get home, faced opposition because the proposal as fashioned by T staff was so vague. The proposal offered no specific routes, no cost estimates, and no decision on whether the service would be operated by the T or a private contractor. The proposal basically consisted of three options – adding additional buses to existing routes for an undetermined amount of time beyond 1 a.m., creating a new late-night network of bus routes between 12:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., or launching service on a limited number of routes between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.
Board members spent a lot of time debating the proposal, but in the end told MBTA staff to come up with a more specific plan. They suggested using MBTA buses and staff, at least initially, and recommended focusing on two routes between either 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. or 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. The shorter time frame may make more sense because T officials say demand for service drops off dramatically between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. If the pilot is eventually adopted, officials said the RIDE service would also have to be provided whenever the T is operating, at a cost of roughly $500,000 per hour.
The board also said the sponsors of the bus service proposal, including Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, and the advocacy group TransitMatters, should craft the proposal, which would then be vetted by T staff. TransitMatters issued a statement saying it plans to get to work on the proposal quickly.
“Well over 40,000 workers are leaving jobs during that period, and they need access to safe, affordable transit,” the organization said. “Our economy will benefit from overnight service, and transit and social equity will take an important leap forward with overnight service.”