As the COVID-19 virus continues its relentless march across the nation and around the world, U.S. transit is quickly becoming one of its casualties. The picture will probably get worse as the $24.9 billion that transit got from the CARES Act runs out next year.
Legacy rail transit systems in places like Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. are now considering service cuts of unprecedented severity. So are other transit providers. The looming disaster has already hit San Francisco, where Muni runs only a small number of bus routes and no rail transit at all, BART continues to operate sharply reduced service, and voters recently pulled the Caltrain commuter line back from the edge of the grave.
Observers of the transit scene already know that, but now the word is out. A comprehensive report by Christine Goldbaum and Will Wright in the Dec. 6 edition of The New York Times sets the scene: “Across the United States, public transportation systems are confronting an extraordinary financial crisis set off by the pandemic, which has starved transit agencies of huge amounts of revenue and threatens to cripple service for years.”
It is easy to express the cause of the woes now suffered by transit providers, but a remedy for those woes will be far more difficult, if not impossible, to find. Because of the shutdowns resulting from fear that the virus will spread if public events are held and businesses are allowed to stay open fully, there are not many places to go, so not many people are going anywhere. (Motorists are encouraged to avoid transit, and many do.) Farebox revenues plunged with ridership, so transit must operate without much of that revenue but with the additional cost of intensive cleaning to kill the virus.
Among the remaining riders are some “essential workers” who depend on transit because they do not have access to an automobile. Now in Boston and other places, their transit is on the chopping block.
Transit providers, riders and their advocates are pinning their hopes on another relief package from Congress. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) advocates for management, and said in a statement on Dec. 3: “The bipartisan, bicameral proposal of a new $908 billion COVID-19 aid package that includes $15 billion for public transit emergency relief is a starting point for negotiations, and immediate action needs to be taken to address a ravaged public transportation industry that continues to serve Americans every day. We urge Congress and the Administration to provide at least $32 billion in emergency funding to ensure that public transit agencies can survive and help our communities and nation recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic. The public transportation industry’s very survival is at stake. We urge both Congressional leaders and the Administration to enact COVID-19 emergency transit funding legislation before Congress adjourns for the year.”
APTA requested about 30% more than the CARES Act provided for transit earlier this year. It is unclear if APTA’s request would tide the industry over until the eventual success of a vaccine allows riders to return to transit while feeling safe about doing so. Also unclear is when those riders will return, and in what numbers.
How much funding Congress would be willing to give transit providers to limit service cuts is unknown. A purportedly bi-partisan proposal would give transit $15 billion, while the Republican leadership in the Senate (who will remain in power during the Biden administration, unless Georgia voters decide otherwise in January) has not offered anything for transit. So the prognosis for transit seems to range from merely grim to exceedingly grim.
Against this backdrop, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA, known locally as the “T”) has proposed drastic reductions in service, but is now delaying implementation. The region’s legacy commuter rail system, with trains on both the South Side and the North Side of the region, may eliminate all trains on weekends and after 9:00 pm on weeknights. Ferry service on its three routes would end, too, as would 25 bus routes. The level of service on local rail transit would be sharply reduced, including shutting down by midnight, about an hour earlier than currently.
MBTA ridership now stands at about 25% of pre-pandemic levels, according to a Dec. 7 Boston Globe article by Adam Vaccaro, Travis Andersen and Danny McDonald: “After an outcry from riders, transit advocates and political leaders, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority indicated Monday it may substantially scale back a host of planned cuts across the system meant to help bridge a severe budget deficit.”
Local rail transit service would end one hour earlier than now, with an average of 25% less service on each line. The “E” Line branch of the Green Line (light rail) would terminate at Brigham Circle, eliminating five stops along 0.8 mile of street running along Huntington Avenue. Overall, service would be reduced to 70% of its current level. On the bus side, 85% of current service would be maintained, with “essential” routes losing 5% of service, “non-essential” routes losing 20%, and 25 routes eliminated.
The proposed cuts on MBTA’s commuter rail system, operated under contract by Keolis, are even more severe, with all trains that run after 9:00 pm on weeknights and all weekend service eliminated, a 35% cut. Peak-hour and midday service would be cut from 544 trains to 430. An expected 31,000 riders would lose their trains. In addition, all ferry service would be eliminated.
The MBTA called its service reduction plan “Forging Ahead,” and the hearing notice on its website billed it as “the Authority’s plan to preserve transit access and quality of service available to transit-critical customers”—a title that did not make it clear that draconian cuts could be coming soon. “Virtual” hearings were held on Nov. 19, and a comment period followed. The proposed cuts are severe. The presentations describing the plan can be downloaded:
For each mode, the presentation listed estimated costs of restoring each specific type of service.
Sean Philip Cotter reported in the Dec. 7 Boston Herald: “Among the changes that have drawn the most pushback is truncation of the Green Line’s E branch several stops up from the normal terminus at Heath Street. The T would replace that last stretch with a shuttle bus.” Cotter also reported that Rep. Ayanna Presley (D-Mass.) joined Mayor Martin J. Walsh (also a Democrat) in condemning the proposed cuts and quoted her as saying: “To deny communities access to these critical transit services in the midst of this crisis would be catastrophic.”
A Dec. 7 report by NBC10 said that the agency’s projected deficit is $579 million, and that proposed cuts would cost 800 jobs. The station also reported that a majority of riders preferred more state funding to keep service going over cuts to save money, according to a poll by Mass, Inc., a non-partisan research organization. According to the same poll, 80% of riders who have stopped riding transit would return to it when they return to their offices.
The comment period ended Dec. 4, and most of the comments criticized the severity of the cuts. Not only did ordinary transit riders have their say, but so did elected officials. The Globe reported: “Passengers said they were strongly opposed to complete closures and urged officials to maintain at least a reduced level of service.”
According to Dennis Kirkpatrick, a local advocate and board member of the Rail User’s Network (RUN), a national rail and transit advocacy organization, state and local government are at odds. Kirkpatrick told Railway Age: “Mayor Walsh, a Democrat, has openly stated that major service cutbacks in the MBTA would devastate not only Boston’s economy, but the region’s and likely the entire state’s as well. Boston and surrounding communities, which are the primary areas served by the MBTA, make up a bulk of the state’s population, and as such a bulk of the essential work force. Cutting the commuter rail and transit would further impact the whole state’s economy, and likely see more businesses fail. Yet Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, recently stated in a press conference that ‘operating empty trains makes no sense. Somewhere there needs to be a workable solution.’”
The Globe reported this about Walsh: “‘The bottom line here is that these cuts are just simply wrong,’” Walsh said at a news conference outside the Government Center T stop, flanked by several city councilors and advocates. “‘They would hurt workers. They would discourage ridership. They will slow our recovery. They create a bigger problem down the road.’”
The same report then turned to Baker: “But Governor Charlie Baker, whose administration runs the MBTA, took a different approach, arguing it was fiscally prudent for the state to reduce transit service where ridership is low. The MBTA has long said its goal is to maintain the most service on parts of the system that have remained in heavier use, such as bus routes in lower-income areas and communities of color.” The story quoted Baker as saying: “I think running empty trains and buses as a general rule is bad public policy.”
Yet, according to Dec. 7 online Globe report by Nik DeCosta-Klipa, Baker’s own party stood in the way of efforts by Democrats in the legislature to raise money that the T could use to provide service: “Some Democrats in the State House recently pushed, unsuccessfully, to increases taxes aimed at the wealthy to raise money to fill the MBTA’s budget hole. Recent efforts to increase the gas tax and fees on ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft have also stalled, despite support from the area’s largest business group. As the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce noted in testimony to the FMCB, the state’s gas tax has increased just 14% since 1991, while MBTA fares have gone up more than 200%.” The FMCB is the Fiscal and Management Control Board, a state-appointed substitute for the conventional MBTA Board.
“The MBTA’s own advisory board has stated that the budget shortfall estimates are overstated, and that funds could be transferred from other pockets,” Kirkpatrick said. “Clearly not all are on the same page.
According to the Globe report, “‘People are very tolerant to having to make changes, because I think a lot of us have had to do that anyway,’ said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, vice chair of the MBTA’s oversight board. But ‘the idea of being completely cut off is really quite terrifying for a lot of people.’”
It appears that the prospect of recovery, especially with several potentially effective vaccines in the offing, played a part in riders’ comments. Remembering a bad winter several years ago, Kirkpatrick also noted, “During the winter of 2015, the MBTA service area was inundated with snow to the point that many lines had to be shoveled by hand. The MBTA was closed for several weeks, and once tracks were cleared, operated on greatly reduced schedules. The resultant hit to the state’s economy took years to bring about recovery. Many local cities and towns have openly and vehemently opposed service cuts, and that also goes for area advocacy groups and the riding public.”
The pushback by the riding public and local officials appears to have made a difference. The Globe reported: “MBTA officials did not provide many details at a marathon board meeting, but they suggested revisions that would still reduce service in areas that have seen a sharp drop in ridership during the pandemic, but avoid eliminating services outright or closing the system earlier at night.”
MBTA officials have said they plan to provide details the week of Dec. 14. For now, it looks like the public and local elected officials have won the first round. “Earlier [Dec. 7], MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said some service decisions could even be postponed until late winter or spring,” the Globe reported. “The MBTA later clarified its board would vote on the service proposal next Monday, and potentially make adjustments during next year’s budget deliberations.”
This suggests that MBTA managers continue to look for ways to save money. If they can save enough, the coming service reductions may not be as severe as originally contemplated.
On the whole, the problems facing the Boston area’s transit officials and transit riders mirror those faced by their counterparts elsewhere in the U.S. If the new vaccines succeed in limiting the spread of the virus and life resumes a semblance of normality, transit will make a comeback at some level. It will probably not return to the pre-COVID-19 ritual practiced by thousands of commuters rushing to their offices five mornings a week. Some riders will return, but service patterns will be different than they were in the past.
The Globe report commented: “The MBTA’s shifting approach to the controversial service cuts reflects the challenges in crafting a budget and projecting ridership in the coming months, as coronavirus vaccines await federal approval, Congress negotiates a stimulus package that could subsidize transit agencies, and white-collar employees consider how often they will work in an office once the pandemic ends. Poftak described it as a ‘dynamic and rapidly developing situation.’”
Chris Lisinski summarized the situation in his Dec. 7 report for GBH’s State House News Service: “The frequent and vocal opposition to a proposed package of MBTA service cuts, combined with growing momentum toward a new federal stimulus package, appears to be making a difference.” Some of the critical decisions about service cuts have been put off until February.
Since March, Railway Age has documented transit’s decline, attempts to recover, and renewed decline. We will continue to report as events unfold in this “dynamic and rapidly developing situation” at the T and elsewhere in the nation.