Rider revenues disappear, triggering painful talks at T

BOSTON — As they weigh a cascade of service cuts alongside other strategies to blunt the impending financial strain caused by a large loss of riders, MBTA staff now suggest that the transit agency may never return to exactly what it was before the pandemic flipped public life on its head.

Over the next few months, higher-ups at the transit agency and their oversight board will embark on an unprecedented effort to reconfigure train and bus service, likely imposing significant cuts on some areas and potentially increasing frequency where riders will need it the most.

The project, in Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack’s view, is “radically different” than the T’s past approach: rather than start with a budget amount and decide which services fit within it, officials will now attempt to identify the services that are most important to riders and then identify the sacrifices needed to make those services available.

“This is going to be painful,” Pollack said Monday. “Any conversation about not having enough resources is painful. You can’t keep promises that you can’t pay for, and you can’t provide service you can’t afford, and that is the conversation that we’re laying the foundation for.”

“The conversation about bus and rail transformation, until now, had been about keeping what we have and layering new stuff on, but we can’t afford that,” she added.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already flattened MBTA ridership levels to a fraction of their previous levels and set in motion a deficit tidal wave at the transit agency. In fiscal year 2022, officials expect a budget deficit of $308 million to $577 million, followed by roughly similar gaps in each of the subsequent three years.

One option officials are weighing to help close that shortfall is to rethink how frequently trains and buses run and where they stop, a step that had been hinted at and formally got underway with a presentation at Monday’s Fiscal and Management Control Board meeting.

Planning is in the early stages, and the scale of the cuts -- let alone which lines they might hit the hardest -- remains unclear. The high end of the projected fiscal 2022 deficit would be about one-third of the operating expenses planned for the year, but officials are also hoping to save money by reallocating federal capital dollars and by securing state legislative approval to pay salaries for staff on capital projects with borrowed funds.

What is apparent, though, is that the public health crisis will prompt major and likely lasting changes at the transit agency.

The cuts could force riders to walk further, transfer lines more frequently or switch between buses and trains compared to existing commutes, and some may need to pay more as a result, MBTA staff told board members Monday.

Laurel Paget-Seekins and Kat Benesh, MBTA employees who led Monday’s presentation, recommended that the board prioritize a targeted approach to cuts.

The best bet, they said, is to maintain current levels of service or even expand it on lines that have both maintained significant crowds during the pandemic and serve “transit critical” areas with significant populations of color, low-income residents or households with limited access to cars.

Areas with low ridership and lower numbers of public transit-dependent people should be most likely to see cuts, they said, while all others will require tradeoffs and tough decisions.

“We want to make sure that when we do make service reductions, it’s not across-the-board, everywhere is the same, but strategic where we’re investing,” Benesh recommended to the board. “These are permanent changes that, if and when additional resources become available, we will not recreate the exact system we had before March 2020.”

Board members or officials could still step in and push for structuring the changes based on whatever will have the most substantial impact on fare revenue or demand equal reductions across all lines, but MBTA staff said Monday they do not recommend those approaches.

Officials will decide what service cuts to make and how deeply to impose them over the next few months. Both the FMCB and the Department of Transportation’s board will discuss the topic next week, and staff said they hope to have a clearer sense of the plans by December or January to implement them with the start of the new fiscal year in July 2021.

During Monday’s meeting, board members flagged concerns about the potential impacts that the revamp could have. Chairman Joseph Aiello said the logic of asking riders to pay more for less frequent trips or for trips that add transfers “seems like a waste of time to me.”

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the board’s vice chair, argued that forcing riders to walk farther or to pay more contradicts the goal of creating an equitable system.

“Our communities and our riders are suffering,” she said. “They’re suffering right now, and that suffering is not going to end any time in the near future, so I want to make sure as we’re looking at the simplification or the changing of the system, these are really big issues.”

Discussion about how to embark on the challenging process of planning service cuts was preceded by what MBTA chief financial officer Mary Ann O’Hara called “good news”: the agency ended July with $5 million more in fare revenue and $15 million less in spending than it anticipated.

Officials expected to see about 10 percent of pre-pandemic usual ridership in July, but trains and buses had crowds about 18 percent the previous normal size, driving up the revenue number. Spending was lower, too, because of positions that are still unfilled driving down wages and lower costs for the RIDE and commuter rail due to decreased ridership.

Both O’Hara and Pollack cautioned, though, against basing predictions on a single monthly snapshot. The agency needs several more months of data to get a clearer sense of how the year will unfold, and it could ultimately hit the end of the fiscal year in a worse position than expected even after a surprising start.

“If (fare revenue) ends up in the same place in January or February of next year, we’re not better off -- it just means we got there not flat and then steep, but sort of gradually,” Pollack said. “I would not get too excited yet about how the fare revenue is going to come back.”

While the scope of potential service changes is still undefined, the start of the process set off alarms among transportation activists who have been pushing for years for the state to invest more in the MBTA, and to improve both the quality and frequency of service.

Chris Dempsey, director of the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition, said the pandemic has underlined how crucial the T is for front-line workers and many residents who need it to access health care and grocery stores.

“The threat of drastic service cuts -- eliminating up to one-third of MBTA service -- must serve as a clear call to the Legislature and Governor to provide the MBTA with more financial support,” Dempsey said in a statement. “New revenue dedicated to the MBTA will prevent service cuts and fare increases that would exacerbate the inequities in our society exposed and worsened by COVID. The Commonwealth cannot afford to let public transit fall into a death spiral of higher fares and reduced service.”

The T received about $827 million in one-time federal aid through the CARES Act, but almost all of that funding will likely be exhausted by the end of the current fiscal year.

Before the pandemic hit, Massachusetts lawmakers appeared poised to embrace a landmark package of tax and fee increases aimed at generating up to hundreds of millions of dollars more for the state’s transportation needs.

But the House-approved legislation died in the Senate without a vote once COVID took center stage, and state leaders have offered no indication since that they have the intention -- or the resources -- to soften the blow on the MBTA.

Mark Liu, operations and development director for the Chinese Progressive Association, told the board that transit service is a “lifeline” for many people across greater Boston, particularly among the low-income Chinese-American immigrants his group represents.

“We understand the budget issues are serious, and so is the survival and day-to-day needs of a lot of the residents in the greater Boston and Massachusetts area,” Liu said. “As we’re considering this, we really want you to put equity at the forefront.”

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