MBTA service cuts rile local leaders

Staff file photo/The MBTA is proposing cutting weekend service and curtailing evening service in 2021 to help fill a gap in its budget. It is hosting a virtual public meeting next Tuesday on the cuts and seeking feedback.

BOSTON — Local leaders are grumbling over the MBTA's plans to slash commuter rail and bus service, saying the cost-cutting move will hurt frontline workers and negatively impact their communities.

The T's Fiscal and Management Control Board is considering plans to cut an estimated $130 million in spending by shutting down two-dozen bus routes, ferry service, and weekend service on the commuter rail.

The agency faces an estimated $580 million budget gap in the fiscal year that begins next July, caused largely by steep declines in ridership due to the pandemic.

In Salem, which has one of the T's busiest commuter rail stations, Mayor Kim Driscoll said she worries about the impact on workers and others who depend on rail and local bus service late at night or on weekends.

"While we know not everyone is fully back to work, the T service been a big part of meeting the needs of our residents during the pandemic," she said.

Driscoll said discontinuing weekend service would be a "big hit" to the city that normally thrives on a steady flow of tourists and weekend visitors.

"Having no service on the weekend is not just a reduction, it’s a stoppage," she said.

On Cape Ann, leaders of the local Chamber of Commerce and a destination marketing group fear the cuts could hurt tourism. 

"(The loss of a weekend rail service) will certainly be detrimental," said Elizabeth Care, executive director of Discover Gloucester. "It will jeopardize our local market and those who want to come from Boston or south of us."

Cape Ann Chamber Vice President Peter Webber said that while the current proposal would occur in the winter months, there is a fear that the cuts would have effects that would trickle into the spring and summer seasons.

“We feel that if these plans are implemented and remain in place for the long term, the impacts of Cape Ann’s business community, especially visitor-oriented businesses, would be similar to those anticipated and experienced in 2017,” said Webber, referring to when rail service to Cape Ann was curtailed before.

Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday said the T's cuts are a "double whammy" for her city following news that C&J Bus Lines, which had operated bus service from the city to Boston for more than three decades, is pulling its local service.

"Hopefully these cuts will only be temporary," Holaday said. "Eventually people are going to return to the workforce and they will need that service to be reliable."

T officials say the cuts would be temporary and services could be restored as ridership increases or if the state gets another infusion of federal funds.

Holaday said she is among many city and town leaders concerned about the impact on investment in their communities if the service cuts end up being permanent.

"It was a huge boom for the city when the commuter rail opened here years ago," Holaday said. "And I know for sure it's had a major impact on people making decisions to leave Boston to relocate to our community."

On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are hoping for additional federal relief to offset deep cuts in public transit as efforts to provide more state funding have fizzled.

An amendment to the Senate version of the $46 billion state budget, approved Wednesday, requires the MBTA to make "reasonable efforts" to offset service cuts or station closures. It would also require notice and public hearings at least 90 days before T officials move to close commuter rail or bus stations.

The Senate budget amendment had originally called for diverting an additional $308 million to the MBTA, but the funding provision was pulled.

Under the transit agency's cost cutting plans, which require approval by the T's fiscal control board, commuter rail service on most lines would be dramatically cut by shutting down the system on weekends and after 9 p.m. on weekdays.

Subway lines would run 20% less often during peak hours and 40% less frequently during off-peak times. Buses would also run at reduced frequency.

Both subway and bus service would stop at midnight systemwide.

The plans also call for closing commuter rail stations, such as Pride's Crossing in Beverly on the Rockport/Newburyport line, and postponing some capital projects.

The cost-cutting plans would not raise fares, which went up last year on the commuter rail and subway by about 6% to fund improvements to the aging system.

State law limits MBTA fare hikes to 7% over a two-year period.

Transit advocates say the cuts will slow economic recovery, increase traffic and pollution, and reduce access for riders who depend on the T.

"These cuts are going to be drastic and devastating,” said Chris Dempsey, of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts. "Shutting down weekend commuter rail service means cutting off people from their jobs."

Dempsey said the T's fiscal board should reject the cuts but said it's "critical" that the Legislature step up with additional sources of funding.

"We know that ridership is down and nobody is advocating for the MBTA to be running empty buses or trains," he said. "But we also know that Massachusetts only works when it has a transit system that works, and the MBTA can only do that if they have the right financial support."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.


What: The MBTA is hosting a virtual public meeting to allow riders to share feedback about proposed cuts to bus and commuter rail service along the Newburyport/Rockport Line.

When: Tuesday, Nov. 24, 6 to 8 p.m.

Where: Via Zoom.

To register: Visit https://www.mbta.com/events/2020-11-24/forging-ahead-virtual-public-meeting-north-shore-region-7. Those who do not have an email address to register for the meeting can call 617-448-4374 to get a call-in number to join the meeting.

Details: Email publicengagement@mbta.com with questions or visit https://www.mbta.com/forging-ahead.

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