The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is proposing budget cuts and service changes in response to unprecedentedly low ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the MBTA website, the Red, Blue, Green and Orange Lines and many bus routes will operate at reduced frequency, while the Green Line Extension (GLX) project and other already-underway capital projects will continue as planned. Bus routes deemed “non-essential” will operate at reduced frequency, be consolidated or be eliminated. All changes are meant to be temporary, and fares will not be raised.
The proposed service changes would be phased in beginning spring 2021.
The MBTA is holding a series of virtual public meetings to gauge support and collect feedback from its host communities in the greater Boston area on the subject of the upcoming service changes. On Nov. 17, the MBTA held a public meeting for members of the Brookline, Cambridge, Newton, Somerville and Watertown communities. After a brief presentation explaining the specifics of the proposed changes, attendees were encouraged to offer their input.
In the meeting, MBTA Assistant General Manager for Policy Laurel Paget-Seekins said that the proposed service changes were designed with the goal of maintaining service to “transit-critical” riders, seniors and riders with disabilities.
“We created a framework for thinking about two different axes. One was transit-critical population. So where are the riders who are most dependent on public transit, which includes low-income populations, communities of color and zero to low vehicle households. And [the MBTA did] an additional screen for seniors and people with disabilities,” Paget-Seekins said.
Routes that serve these populations and have retained a high proportion of pre-pandemic ridership will be largely preserved. These routes include the Red, Blue, Green and Orange Lines, many bus routes and the Fairmount commuter rail line. Once the changes are phased in, many of these routes will operate at lower frequencies, varying by route and by time of day, according to the MBTA’s website.
Paget-Seekins also explained that the MBTA is planning to stop ferry service beginning March 2021, given that the ferry’s ridership has decreased substantially during the pandemic.
During the meeting, both Paget-Seekins and Monica Tibbits-Nutt, vice chair of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, expressed awareness of the strain the service changes may place on MBTA users.
“We are not raising fares. I recognize the financial burden these changes would create for families, and I do not take that lightly,” Tibbits-Nutt said.
Paget-Seekins also stressed that the proposed cuts to service are a “last resort” that the MBTA is undertaking only after it attempted to reduce internal costs and reallocate capital funds to alleviate the strain on its budget.
Local government representatives and community members who attended the public meeting were critical of the proposed changes and expressed concern during their testimonials.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller of the City of Newton described how cuts to MBTA service will hinder post-pandemic economic recovery.
“Without frequent public transit, reviving our economy will be even more difficult, and doing it equitably will be near impossible,” Fuller said.
Fuller’s concern over the service cuts was echoed by State Rep. Tommy Vitolo, who represents Brookline.
“No matter how hard the MBTA works to minimize the harm — and I believe that the T really is seeking to do just that — the harm will be real and considerable,” Vitolo said.
Destina Agar, a community member whose bus route home from her hospital job would be eliminated under the MBTA’s proposed service changes, said the service cuts will have a disproportionate impact on certain communities.
“It’s going to hit people that are low income, and it’s going to hit communities of color and black and brown people, and it’s just going to make things worse for these people,” Agar said.
The MBTA Deputy Press Secretary Lisa Battiston confirmed that this includes the GLX project.
“The construction of GLX remains on schedule at this time,” Battiston wrote in an email to the Daily.
The GLX is currently on track to be completed in December 2021, according to the MBTA website. When finished, it will extend the Green Line northward from its current endpoint at Lechmere up to College Avenue in Medford, near Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus.
Tufts Director of Government and Community Relations Rocco DiRico expressed excitement at the GLX project’s moving forward.
“We were delighted to see that this important project is moving forward. The Green Line Extension and the Medford/Tufts station in particular will be an incredible asset for our students, faculty, staff, and neighbors,” DiRico wrote in an email to the Daily. “The new station will connect our Medford/Somerville campus to our Boston campuses, increase access to public transportation, and serve as a new gateway to Tufts University.”
The MBTA will continue conducting public meetings through Dec. 2, and the Fiscal and Management Control Board will vote on the proposed changes on Dec. 7.