Walsh: MBTA should re-think ‘short-sighted’ service cuts

Mayor Martin Walsh called on the MBTA to rethink its current plan to eliminate or scale back bus routes, ferries and other services in an effort to offset a deepening budget shortfall caused by the pandemic. The mayor—speaking outside of the MBTA’s Government Station alongside other elected officials and union leaders— urged the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board and legislators to come up with a new plan to cope with a $579 million deficit.

The FMCB, which was originally set to meet today, pushed back their plans to vote on the service cuts package to Mon., Dec.14. On Monday, describing a "dynamic and rapidly developing" situation, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said he would suggest deferring some critical decisions on the service cuts until February, when the agency formally embarks on its fiscal year 2022 budgeting process. Current plans call for cuts to be implemented throughout early 2021.

“I’m asking and demanding that the FMCB go back, sit down with the legislature and come back with an equitable plan— cutting MBTA service will only set us back further in the commonwealth,” the mayor said. “The MBTA’s budget challenges are real and significant, but moving forward with these service cuts— especially right now— hurts our residents and is short-sighted. It will hurt our city’s ability to recover from this pandemic and it will create lasting impact for so many of our constituencies and businesses.”

The T’s current proposal, unveiled in November, would eliminate commuter rail service on weekends and after 9 p.m. on weeknights, cease running all ferries, scrap 25 bus routes, including one that runs along Dorchester Avenue, halt subways and buses at midnight, and scale back more transit options as soon as early as next spring and summer.

T officials aimed the steepest cuts at routes where ridership has declined the most during pandemic and in areas where commuters have access to alternatives, but the vast majority of the system — which hosted upwards of 1.2 million rides a day before Covid struck — would still be affected.

All of the MBTA’s core subway lines would run 20 percent less frequently. The Green Line’s E Branch would also stop running trolleys at the Brigham Circle stop in the Mission Hill neighborhood, replacing the final five stops with bus service for the fewer than 1,000 commuters who use them.

Both subway and bus service would stop at midnight, no longer running beyond that point until the start of service the next day, and the T would eliminate 25 of its 169 bus routes. In Dorchester, the 18 bus line, which runs between Ashmont and Andrew stations on a route that mainly parallels the Red Line— would be discontinued. Another 14 routes would be consolidated and 5 would be shortened.

The proposed cuts, Walsh argued, would hurt essential workers that “keep the city running” and cannot opt to work from home, as well as residents with disabilities, and veterans who use the E line to access services at the VA Hospital.

“The plan will also hurt our public health and our climate, cause more crowded busses and trains and increase the spread of covid-19, and ultimately hurt our recovery from the pandemic,” said Walsh.

Walsh said that the Biden-Harris administration presents “a turning point in our nation.”

“We'll soon have a new partner in Washington who is actually talking about a federal stimulus package that will progress on the current federal funding for transit which may make the cuts unnecessary,” the mayor said.

Boston City Council President Kim Janey, who also spoke at the press conference, said that the COVID crisis “cannot and must not be used as a from to continue the dismantling of services in our city that they so desperately need.”

“Taking into consideration the need to maintain strict social distancing guidelines in public spaces, cuts will serve to result in crowded trains in busses. These cuts are in line with a long history of defunding essential public services and transportation in particular.

At-Large Councillor and 2021 mayoral candidate Michelle Wu also called the proposed cuts “short-sighted and dangerous.”

“The push to dismantle public transportation should be remembered as one of the biggest failures of the Baker Administration,” Wu said in a statement. “As we work towards an equitable recovery from COVID-19, these proposed cuts will impact the very essential workers—many from low-income communities and communities of color—who have been the heroes of this pandemic and who rely on the MBTA daily.”

Mike Vartabedian, a representative from the Machinist Union District 15 and the Public Transit Public Good Coalition, cited a new report which projects that more than 800 jobs could be eliminated if the MBTA moves ahead with major service cuts.

The report, released by Public Transit Public Good Coalition, also said the job cuts would disproportionately hit Black workers living in communities with high COVID-19 infection rates like Dorchester, Brockton, Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roxbury, Revere, Lynn and Everett.

“These planned cuts will hit the communities that have been hit hardest by this deadly pandemic and the workers at the MBTA who have risked everything while providing vital service,” said Vartabedian. “These people have suffered the greatest losses during the pandemic and it is unfair to ask them to suffer an even greater loss.”

“These are unprecedented times for all workers,” Boston Carmen's Union Local 589 President Jim Evers said in a statement released with the report. "For the MBTA to pull the rug out from under hundreds of workers and their families while the state is still reeling from COVID-19 is unconscionable.”

Lee Matsueda, executive director of Community Labor United, cited a recent survey in which, he said, that the cuts would result in major layoffs for MBTA employees, pushing hundreds of more people into unemployment and instability.

“It's clear that the bulk of layoffs are likely to come from the ranks of bus and train motor operators. This is a group of workers that is largely non-white— 50 percent are Black and about half of them live in communities where covid rates are above 4 percent,” he said.

“The largest groups of drivers and operators live in Dorchester where the health and economic toll of the pandemic has been among one of the most in the state— we cannot stand for this.”

Added Matsueda: “We have a responsibility to stop these cuts— we call on Governor Baker, on the legislature, and the T and it’s executives to take this opportunity to protect frontline workers, essential workers, and MBTA riders.”

Last week, the MBTA Advisory Board, an independent oversight panel, reviewed the proposal and concluded that the plan poses unwarranted long-lasting risks.

"The long-term impact of service cuts is dramatic for riders and communities alike," the board wrote in a report.

"The short-term budget benefit of making them must be weighed carefully, and the assumptions underpinning them deserve thorough investigation. The Advisory Board's view is that risk of permanent loss of ridership, increased congestion, and other negative effects of service cuts to people and communities is too high a price to pay right now, just as a vaccine is on the horizon."

When asked if he would support raising taxes in order to maintain the same T service even with low ridership, Walsh referenced his support in 2013 of legislation to increase taxation on gas.

“That money was supposed to go into funding T service and improving it,” said Walsh. “So the answer is yes. There are ways of being creative. We just had an opportunity with the budget that just went through the House and Senate to make some investments and temporary fixes and that vehicle was not used so there's also an opportunity there,” he said.

“I’d also look at charging ride-sharing companies and would be in favor of legislation giving the City of Boston an original ballot question that would allow us the ability to raise our own revenue. If they don’t want to do that then let us raise our own revenue for them.”

Walsh said he is confident that the FMCB and other stakeholders will listen to calls from city leaders and activists to stop the cuts.

“I think they’re listening,” the mayor said. “

Poftak did not say specifically on Monday what portions of the plan might be delayed or reconsidered, though members of the FMCB planned to discuss the topic later on Monday after an executive session to discuss collective bargaining.

"I've made the following request of staff and I make the following recommendation to the board: that we defer the presentation of the initial round of potential service reductions to next week's meeting, that we continue to work with our labor stakeholders to determine the best ways to reduce costs and preserve the resiliency of the MBTA, and that we potentially defer some decisions on service to the FY22 budget process where it's feasible for us to have that flexibility," Poftak said.

State House News Service reporting contributed to this story.