As a part of its “Forging Ahead” initiative, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Advisory Board held a public meeting over Zoom on Nov. 17 to discuss potential service cuts to the Inner Core service area, which includes Newton. The proposals aim to ease the financial stress the MBTA is facing— a projected budget shortfall of $580 million from decreased ridership due to the pandemic.
The MBTA’s proposals would temporarily shorten operating hours for the commuter rails on weekdays, ending service at 9 p.m. and eliminating service of weekend trains. Proposed changes would also eliminate all ferry service and change certain bus routes beginning in March and May, respectively, according to Laurel Paget-Seekins, assistant general manager for policy for MBTA.
Paget-Seekins said that to determine which routes to cut, the MBTA analyzed ridership data to see which routes are deemed “essential,” based on ridership levels before and during the pandemic. The data also includes whether rides were serving people of color, low-income areas, and zero to low-vehicle households.
Currently 82 percent of trips riders take are on essential routes and 18 percent are on non-essential routes, according to Paget-Seekins. The proposed changes would eliminate three percent of the total trips.
“In this proposal, the percentage of households within the MBTA service area that lose access within a half mile of the MBTA goes from previously 82 percent, down to 78.5 percent, so we recognize that some households would lose access to MBTA services within a half mile,” Paget-Seekins said.
Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller opposed the proposed elimination of bus routes 52 and 505, both of which pass through Newton, because of the demographics that the cuts would impact.
“The cuts will hurt seniors, youngsters, those without access to cars, and employees, and have a disproportionate impact on those with tight budgets and essential workers, both of whom those groups are already struggling during this pandemic,” Fuller said.
Fuller explained that public transit is essential to Newton’s becoming a more inclusive and affordable neighborhood in the greater Northland and Riverside areas.
“These developments will bring 1,300 new housing units, over 200 of which will be affordable, as well as an estimated 1,000 additional jobs, and were designed to minimize new vehicle trips,” Fuller said. “But, their success depends on having robust MBTA service.”
Massachusetts State Representatives Tommy Vitolo, representing Brookline, and Mike Connolly, representing Cambridge and Somerville, echoed Fuller’s statements stressing the necessity of public transportation.
“If there was ever a time where having some underutilization of services made sense, it would be in this time of global pandemic. If the trains and the buses aren’t completely overcrowded right now, then that’s probably a good thing,” Connolly said.
Vitolo discussed the issues with state funding, citing the Commonwealth’s proposed transportation revenue package that failed to pass through the senate back in March. The package would have increased revenue by an estimated $500 million with a 5 cent tax increase on the Massachusetts gas tax.
Vitolo expressed sympathy for MBTA workers who he says are in a difficult position.
“I apologize to my friends who work at the MBTA and who work for the MBTA advisory board,” Vitolo said. “You’ve been put in an awful position and this goes against everything you want to achieve, and I’m sorry that we’re in this position, and hope that we can find the right people to find the money to pay for transit that everybody deserves.”
Vitolo said that even though the MBTA is seeking to minimize harm, any service reductions will still have detrimental effects.
The MBTA representatives said that they were there to listen and take into account the concerns of customers in their decision-making.
“We are not faceless bureaucrats. We are your neighbors, your fellow riders. Your concerns are important to us. We are here tonight for you,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, Vice Chair of the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board. “Whether you are an elected official, an advocate, an essential worker, or someone looking for better employment or educational opportunities, this is your system, and we are here to ensure that you are heard.”
Fuller encouraged those at the meeting to recognize the value in the bus routes that the MBTA has proposed to cut.
“I am so grateful to each of you and I know the tradeoffs you’re contemplating are difficult,” Fuller said. “But, I invite any of you to join me on the 52 or the 505 to see why these routes matter so much to Newtonians, and I ask you to do the right thing.”
The board will hold its final vote on the Forging Ahead initiative on Dec. 7.
Featured Image Courtesy of Pi.1415926535 / Wikimedia Commons