After resisting calls to change course for months, the MBTA embarked on a mission Monday to reverse service cuts across all modes in the coming months by using hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency federal aid.
The T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board voted to restore subway and bus service to pre-pandemic levels, resume weekend commuter rail service on lines where it was suspended, and begin running ferries again, all with an unspecified but urgent timeline of “as soon as possible.”
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said at the board’s meeting that the agency expects to receive at least $845 million from the American Rescue Plan – on top of the $1.1 billion the T received in prior federal stimulus packages – putting it in “a much different landscape” than when T officials planned and approved the unpopular service cuts.
“We are bringing back service as fast as we possibly can on bus and subway with the goal of getting to 100 percent of pre-Covid service levels,” Poftak said. “Funding is not the constraint right now to building back service.”
The FMCB voted 3-0 in favor of the changes. Members Chrystal Kornegay and Tim Sullivan abstained.
The timeline for what Poftak outlined is unclear. One obstacle is staffing. He said that the agency, which did not lay off workers, continues to face significant employee absences because of pandemic impacts. As of Monday, more than 40 staff are actively ill with the virus, and, Poftak estimates, there are twice as many who are unable to work while awaiting test results or quarantining.
Hiring to fill positions vacated during the pandemic has also been slow, so the agency needs to “play catch-up,” Poftak said.
“If the question is when will we get to 100 percent of pre-pandemic bus service, I don’t have a specific answer to that,” he replied when FMCB Vice Chair Monica Tibbits-Nutt asked when bus service will return. “We’re still trying to figure out how to get people trained and what the protocol for group trainings is going to be.”
MBTA ridership and the fare revenue it brings plummeted when Covid hit, and more than a year into the pandemic, it still lingers around 30 percent of pre-pandemic averages. Gov. Baker has argued it is “bad public policy” to run a full suite of service for such low ridership.
The FMCB in December narrowly approved a package of cuts that slashed trip frequency by 20 percent on the Red, Orange, and Green Lines and non-essential buses, cut frequency by 5 percent on the Blue Line and essential buses, closed 20 bus routes, suspended weekend commuter rail service on seven lines, and ended Charlestown and Hingham direct ferry trips.
Commuter rail and ferry changes took effect in January, while most bus and subway cuts hit this month.
Lawmakers, advocates, and riders have criticized the MBTA for months for implementing the cuts while receiving nearly $2 billion in federal emergency funding. The congressional delegation increased pressure in recent weeks, with members arguing that the T stashing away stimulus to address future budget gaps goes against the spirit of the aid.
In a Monday statement, the Transit is Essential coalition that has been vocally fighting the cuts praised the latest vote as “steps in the right direction.”
“The service cuts have set back our region – the need to restore service and build back better is now more urgent than ever,” the coalition said. “The MBTA’s presentation also made clear that we must continue to invest in the system for the long-term. The T has been chronically underfunded , and federal support will not alone solve this challenge. The Legislature must now re-energize to provide additional resources for the T and transportation statewide.”
The $827 million the T got from the CARES Act went toward plugging holes in fiscal year 2021, and the $301 million from a subsequent package in December was used mostly to backfill capital funding that also helped close the existing gap.
Under preliminary projections, the MBTA expects to receive the $845 million that Poftak cited from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the largest stimulus sum to date and one that significantly changes the agency’s outlook.
Earlier budget forecasts that MBTA staff produced without factoring in the newest federal package envisioned gaps of $201 million to $495 million each year between FY23 and FY26.
Now, using the most pessimistic ridership and fare outlook, MBTA Chief Financial Officer Mary Ann O’Hara projected that the agency can close any gaps in FY22 and FY23 and still have $203 million remaining for the following year.
The pivot resurfaced long-running conversations about the T’s financial outlook. FMCB Chair Joseph Aiello said on Monday that the T had been heading toward budget gaps even before Covid hit, and he urged officials to consider the financial upside once projects such as the effort to modernize fare-paying methods are complete.
“This T that exists today cannot continue to exist in FY24, FY25, and then hope someone’s going to give us more and more and more money,” Aiello said. “We’ve got to solve this ourselves.”
Before the T’s board meeting Monday, Boston Mayor Kim Janey joined with the Transit is Essential Coalition and riders to oppose the service cuts.
Janey also announced the city will launch a pilot program running through April 19 to provide nearly 1,000 workers with free CharlieCards preloaded with $60 each and two-month Blue Bike passes. The program is open to workers in five Boston Main Streets Districts: Nubian Square, Jamaica Plain’s Three Squares, East Boston, Mission Hill, and Fields Corner.
Service cuts, Janey said, “shortchange the needs of Boston’s workers and ignore the sacrifices they make each day to keep our city running.”
“Now more than ever, Boston needs a transit system that works for everyone,” she said. “The people who stock our groceries, clean our schools, and staff our hospitals rely on buses and trains to get to work. We count on essential workers to get us through this pandemic, and essential workers count on public transportation.”