MBTA Service Cuts

The MBTA has proposed service cuts among other measures to balance its budget — specifically by ending weekend service on some commuter rail lines and by trimming the zone in which they offer rides to persons with disabilities back to the zone required by federal law.

Some have urged me to speak out against the cuts, which account for $17 million out of $49 million in budget balancing measures proposed within the total budget of $1.95 billion.

Of course, as an advocate both for green transportation and for people who lack transportation options, I’m troubled by the proposed cuts.

But as a seasoned observer of the MBTA, I intend to hold my fire and let them work through their budget process.

The current management team has been working very hard to break out of the typical cycle in which health care, pensions, collective bargaining agreements and other costs rise faster than available revenue.

Throughout the year, they have been making and implementing proposals to control costs. Ultimately, nonetheless, the MBTA board will need to make some difficult choices.

Prior boards have often sought assistance from the legislature to make the choices more palatable. Through the decades, state support of public transportation has grown to substantial levels — essentially, the state (with the help of cities and towns in the service area) pays all the debt service of the MBTA and roughly half of its operating costs.

I don’t see the legislature altering the support structure for the MBTA this year.

First, we have a Governor and a T board who are very committed to living within their available resources and are unlikely to ask for more funding. Second, as eager as I am to support public transportation, this is not a year in which I see a real likelihood of new state resources becoming available. The Governor’s budget proposal for next year depends on an unpopular and unlikely proposal to levy new penalties on businesses that do not provide health care for their employees.

By the time the legislature is acting on the budget — or perhaps in the months after we act on the budget — we may be facing much greater financial problems as President Trump and the Republican majorities in Congress cut federal support for health care and other state programs.

Finally, in 2018, the people will have the choice of voting on the ballot for more transportation funding through increased taxes. The legislature is unlikely to get ahead of that decision.

Beyond the financial realities, I think there is another practical reality: The MBTA management team is human and has finite bandwidth. Because they are ultimately dependent on legislative support, they have to fully respond to legislators. Legislators distract them from their mission of making the system work by raising longshot demands for additional service and by making tough choices tougher by suggesting that the choices are unnecessary.

My sense of the current team is that they are very focused and have made considerable progress on both the operational side and the financial side. They have also used the board structure that the legislature created to support a robust, ongoing public conversation about the T’s capital program.

I’m certainly not endorsing any of the proposed cuts, and if an opportunity emerges for the legislature to mitigate the cuts, I will be supportive. But for now, we politicians need to let the MBTA board do its job of publicly vetting the options and making hard choices.

Some responses (3/19, 4PM)

I’ve read through the comments through Sunday afternoon at 4PM [and now through March 27] and I thank everyone for engaging.

  • I agree passionately  with all those who spoke of the importance of public transportation, from a climate standpoint, from an economic development standpoint, from an equity standpoint and from a quality of life standpoint.
  • I have always been and remain a strong and active advocate for more transit funding — gas tax, carbon tax, general revenues, local options — I’m all there, because I really believe we should stand behind public transit and expand it.
  • But long term transit improvement is one thing, the next year’s budget is another.  I do believe that we have to let the T Board listen to the public, get additional data and make their decision.  It is important that they are able to say ‘no’ or ‘not any more’ from time to time.  If they don’t make choices necessary to balance their operating budget, they will eat into their capital budget.  Decades of exactly that behavior is what got us where we are today.
  • I think most commenters understood this, but “Commuter Rail” does not mean subways or buses. There are no proposed cuts in subway or bus service. Commuter Rail means the railroad trains that run to the further suburbs.

I will make sure that the MBTA has the opportunity to review the feedback provided by all of you here.  I fully support riders and others making their feelings known to the MBTA — that is an important part of the process.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

136 replies on “MBTA Service Cuts”

  1. For example, it is not clear that privatizing maintenance will save money. The cost of private maintenance is relevant to the age of corporate buses, most newer than those of the T. The performance of the French company, which cut its teeth on new high speed rail, has been more than challenged by the commuter rail rolling stock and condition of rails, signals, and multiple ownership of operating and maintenance right of ways: consider Amtracks performance hindering South Station.

    Bold management and service orientation, motivating employees, we Hear little.

  2. “If they don’t make choices necessary to balance their operating budget, they will eat into their capital budget. Decades of exactly that behavior is what got us where we are today.”

    I’m sorry, but this is simply not true. The operating expenses placed under the capital budget pale in comparison to the amount of the capital budget that is left unspent each fiscal year. Placing operating expenses under the capital budget has not mattered and will not matter until the T can figure out how to spend the whole budget.

    And this concept that ‘because the commuter rail doesn’t run to my district, we should be okay with cutting it’, or ‘anything that happens in somebody else’s district is fine’ is exactly why the T is a broken system. Too many people are okay with underfunding this system or cutting it into pieces because it doesn’t affect them directly. Let’s acknowledge that a functional MBTA affects all of us, in the end. And an MBTA that doesn’t provide full service on weekends is simply not a functional system.

    I fundamentally disagree with the idea of making a policy change based on no evidence. The T has provided no evidence regarding the effects of this policy change, and we should oppose it until they can show some hard evidence to explain why they think it doesn’t matter.

    1. You are 100% right that spending the whole capital budget has not consistently happened lately — the scarcest resource of all is management bandwidth.

      But from a longer term viewpoint, under investment in maintenance has absolutely been a problem.

      To be clear, the commuter rail does serve my district, both on Belmont and in Brighton. I do have constituents that are affected by these cuts.

      I think it is wrong to say there is “no evidence” — granted the counts are not perfect, and I think the board will want more information on that.

  3. Thanks for asking about this, Senator.
    I’m not a regular weekend rider, but do sometimes use the service for work and recreation. I’m not sure we can have a real discussion when we don’t know how many people are riding or what they need the service for.
    Also, when I hear service will be cut “for a year”, I worry that it will never come back. How can we be sure?

    1. Exactly. Just like how the A line to Watertown Square and the E line going all the way to Forest Hills were “temporarily suspended” and replaced with buses.

  4. Your original comments were reasonable.
    What is not reasonable is the continued assumption that the MBTA should continue business as usual. The current Baker approach is in the right direction and the board should keep going.

  5. Wasn’t the MBTA saddled with a good portion of the Big Dig debt? That decision transferred the cost of infrastructure used mostly by private vehicles to the public transportation system.
    How fair is it then to point at the MBTA as a gobbler of funds? There are probably ways to improve the efficiency of the MBTA but it also seems as if conscious neglect has been going on for ages.
    Public transportation can cut pollution, road congestion, individual travel costs, and time wasted sitting in traffic. It is also the only means of travel available to those who can’t drive. Instead of cutting service, why not really improve the MBTA system instead? It’s a public service that provides value to all sectors of our economy. Everybody benefits from good public transportation.

    1. All of the above philosophically I agree with.

      But one point we have to keep coming back to is that the T is not “saddled with debt”: The state aid to the T covers all of the debt service and roughly half of the operating costs.

  6. I think there has to be a balance between public transportation and fiscal concerns. Furthermore, increases in rail lines and subway to outlying areas may actually hurt economic development in the more remote cities. Doesn’t it make more sense to have more jobs in Worcester, Springfield, Fall River, New Bedford, Lawrence, Lowell, etc.

  7. Hi Will – standing with you. What I worry about is all the new High tower construction in Boston w little to no thought about how those drivers are going fit on our streets. Parking seems to be an amenity that these project think is great. Maybe for the sale, but there is a long term problem they are not addressing… some of their profits should go into mass transit to reduce the # of vehicles on city streets…

    Thanks for all your attention to our issues, Kris

  8. I do believe that Public transportation
    is a very important thing for a lot of people but I do believe the board has done a bad job of managing it

  9. I ride Commuter Rail nearly every weekend to visit family in Newburyport, Wilmington, Tewskbury and other locations. I live in Brighton and don’t have a car. I think there’s a bus from Logan to Newburyport, but nothing to the other places I visit.

    I’d be willing to pay more to use CR on weekends.

  10. I’m in favor of the proposed elimination of the MBTA weekend service. I’ve ridden both the Worcester and the Franklin lines on weekends, and there is very few passengers. The change to The Ride is less palatable, but likely necessary. We need to live within our means.

  11. Yes, Commuter Rail is not the Red Line nor bus service. Commuter Rail does, however, substitute for urban street space. No business person would attempt to compete with cars by reducing rail service.

    Already urban street space is full, the speed of commuting declining, and more commuters to come to the residential and corporate and research buildings being built in Watertown, Cambridge, and Boston.

    Yes, MBTA maintenance, capital replacement, management restructuring, all and more have been put off for multiple terms of office.

    Yes, a revolution of a particular rich, implementing an incredible military spending and wall to offset the fear engendered by a White House orchestrating confusion, obfuscation, dissembling and indirection in an attempt to play one more hand of the old America.

    Are we left, then, with transit and street space—the bus lane—an inexpensive but possible way to increase ridership, move more commuters faster, and collect a little more revenue for the T? All it takes is political will.

  12. Here is my over simplistic approach
    1)MBTA file chapter 9 bankruptcy.
    2)Big Dig debt discharged
    3)MassPort takeover MBTA rail(commuter rail, subway ,trolley) operations and run them.
    4)create 8 to 10 regional transit authorities each consisting of 5 to 12 community clusters surrounding Boston (proper)
    .Create a surface transit authority exclusive to Boston
    5) these RTA’s take over the MBTA bus lines
    6) RTAs be directly independantly funded by the state (not MBTA). They sink or swim on their own merits.

  13. Hi Will,
    In this era when Trump policies stoke distrust of government, I have no idea why the Massachusetts Legislature voted a large pay raise in the “dead of night” and then expects us, the tax-paying citizens, to continue to believe we will find solutions in “conversations” about fiscal problems. We have to pay the freight for the MBTA in elevated fares and diminished service. The MBTA needs to find efficiencies everywhere. So does the Legislature.

  14. Senator Brownsberger
    Please continue to support public transportation which is necessary for all people. Thank you.
    Joe Galvin

  15. Will–

    What does the business community say about this. I can’t imagine that they would favor these cuts in service.

  16. I am deeply disturbed by the prospect of commuter rail service being cut on weekends because it creates the impression that only the weekday commuters matter. Understanding that we all are required to create budgets for our own personal households, priorities must be established. Why is public transportation not a priority? We need to keep cars off the road not only to reduce traffic but to keep pollution in check. Knowing that the costs of living in the city have skyrocketed, shunting more residents to the suburbs, it is unconscionable to me that we not provide these folks with transportation into the city where they work or visit on weekends. Everything is connected.

  17. Will,

    I agree with your balanced view of all the issues on public transportation. It isn’t easy to consider how keep a lid on the costs, while trying to meet the needs of all categories of the people
    who live in Massachusetts.


  18. The problem here is what they’re using the money for instead. In theory, capital investment is good and all, and maybe we’ll even see some of it here in our district with things like the new accessible Waverley station. But a station, no matter how shiny and accessible, is only as useful as the train service provided! It makes no sense to spend more money on infrastructure at the expense of operations because ultimately the only purpose of that infrastructure is to support the operations.

  19. Maybe a small thing but how will service reduction affect people wanting to attend weekend concerts, sports events, cultural events? Visit museums and exhibitions? Students attending special classes and events offered only on weekends? Is there a study showing who uses commuter meal on weekends what the impact would be? Reduction of the ride service is of course very serious and would be devastating for a lot of people .

  20. Interesting and important discussion. One strategy to deal with high fixed cost infrastructure is to boost ridership in the under-utilized portions of the system. This helps to spread the fixed costs over more riders, and avoid a “death spiral” where revenue shortfalls trigger cuts in service, which in turn worsen commuter experiences and cause ridership to drop.

    With the Charlie Card, there should be data showing the connections between particular bus routes and system usage; parts of the system with low load factors that could be boosted; and the variability by hour in system utilization.

    The electronic cards also open the possibility to vary ride pricing by route and time-of-day — such as to offer discounts for underutilized portions of the system, or low-demand times of day. Washington, DC already does this.

    Has the MBTA been looking at the problem more broadly? Have they modeled alternative pricing scenarios? Do they benchmark the lost revenue potential of spare capacity and whether discounts could provide a material net increase in users and system revenues?

  21. I absolutely canNOT support any cutback in The Ride or other assistance for the handicapped.

    And what about those who work on weekends and need computer rail for that?

    Long-term can be dealt with long-term — not at the immediate expense of wrecked lives.

  22. As probably one of the few non-techies in this area who does not own a smart phone, has the T decided to outsource the Ride to ride sharing services permanently? Has anyone ascertained what percentage of the seniors have a smart phone? Could be the Ride is being suggested to go by the wayside altogether so the “smart phone” isn’t an issue at all. I live alone and frankly when the time comes, I don’t know what I’d do without the Ride. Could be Boston’s version of the Ride will remain intact.
    Secondly, I read in the Saturday Globe the MBTA doesn’t know how many riders there are on the weekend commuter rails? They need $300,000 to study it?! Really inefficient. Who is collecting the tickets? Who turns in the tickets? No accounting?
    Third, I live on the BC Green Line going on 30 years. They cut back on free outbound overground fares. (I used to get off at Wash St, go to the old S&S and then get back on for free. Ok. ) Then they eliminated the Greycliff stop. What else are they going to eliminate and still can’t make ends meet?
    Fourth, someone needs to do cross-cultural studies meaning how do other states handle and pay for their transportation systems? The MBTA service area is quite small compared to NYC and service in NYC is lightning fast. The trains are cleaned at each terminus. Never seen that here.
    Fifth, not the popular thing to say but the T workers are paid a lot, pensions etc etc. People in NY killed themselves working after Hurricane Sandy even though their houses were nearly destroyed. I didn’t see that two years ago.
    Sixth, when there are two cars on the MBTA, do you need a full-fledged trained driver on the second train? The piggy back train driver is a valuable presence but do they have to be the most highly experienced and trained?
    Seventh, the cost of parking in Boston has gone way up. Some probably can’t deal with that additional expense. I take the T myself as a Boston resident. How is a weekend commuter going to cope with that expense?

    1. Yes it is their was two million dollars stolen from a board member janice loux who was on the pension fund board as i recall when another board member want to make it public janice loux called him a snitch,second brownsberger is on the judiciary committee gives him move power almost than the governor,therefore if anything he needs to hold all those accountable for the funds missing before anything else with the MBTA is supported be the public those are the ? I would be asking 3 the big dig project they allowed tthe same thieves to control that they used cheap equipment so they can pocket the money of tax payers no accountability there either

    2. Not to mention the T has retired members sstill collecting then haid the coin collector stealing the coins,so if your going to employ the same theives and not hhold them accountable then dont ask me tto fund the MBTA pension theives

  23. Cutting service on The Ride for persons with disabilities is a disgrace. The MBTA should put themselves in our position. Would they like it to happen to them? What about people who work late hours on the weekend. How will they get to and from work? Instead of taking away, start giving more to those who really need it and are not abusing the system. I thought we were living in a democracy!!

  24. Sadly there has been poor investment in the commuter rail. One issue is having the right equipment for the job. Years ago B&M used Bud liners (small self contained trains – there is one at the end of the minuteman bike train in Bedford) which might be ideal for weekend and mid day transit service. but that will not solve the immediate needs. I can point to the Boston Engine Terminal where a surprise visit might explain where a great deal of waste is – I hear there is little work that actually takes place and it might be best to out source the jobs here – like much of the T this area has become a place for people to make money and do nothing – look at the operating performance of the engines – it’s a disaster

  25. I have a disability, and I ride the 73 bus 5 days a week to work from Belmont to Cambridge and back again. I sometimes ride the 71 bus, take the Red Line on weekends, and twice a month take the Purple Line to Fitchburg. Cutting the service on weekends for the Fitchburg line is adding insult to injury in my opinion. If you want to see what I mean about the Fitchburg line, set yourself up for a T alert for that line during the week when people are trying to get to work on time. Bear in mind, that many of the platforms have no shelter, and think of the commuters waiting for the train to arrive in single digit temps, never mind when it is raining or snowing. Disgraceful. I also get T alerts for the Red Line, 73 and 71. The number of emails I get about delays, service alerts, etc., etc. is at times overwhelming. When riding the 73, I especially feel bad for the commuters who get passed by because the buses are full to capacity. I get to experience that when I get passed by on my way home from work. I have lived in 5 different states, traveled to 35 states, used the rail system in Europe, and I can honestly say this is the worst public transportation I have ever experienced. I don’t know what the budget solutions are but I don’t have confidence in Baker’s ability. See http://archive.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/06/13/bakers_role_in_big_dig_financing_process_was_anything_but_small/?page=3.

  26. Exactly the opposite. I think that Commuter Rails are key and I think they are faster and more reliable than standard transportation and they should remain as they are.

  27. I am late to make a comment, because of my vacation to China. My experience in China is that their public transportation system is decades ahead of the city of Boston. The high speed trains networks is and will remain to be my envy for the rest of my life. ( I don’t see any possibility of U.S catching up after experienced the Big Dig project. A similar project here will waste a thousand times of money and time due to the deficiencys of our political system, construction worker unions and project execution)

    Let’s face it , the railroad to Tibet is about 1500 miles long, over elevated frozen land, mountains and rivers, it cost $300 million dollars and take three years. The project finished in 2006 and served a vital role to connect Tibet to Beijing.

    The notorious big dig, a 7- miles tunnel in the city of Boston , cost us $15 billion and 15 years. Also finished in 2006.

    How can we explain the 1000 time difference in cost and time overrun? ( if you compare the unit distance construction cost you come to the same conclusion )

    My final question,
    Is there anything seriously wrong with mass pike, authority, MBTA and Department of Transportation?

  28. About healt care in sure 95% of them here illegally is getting health care thru their unions which again tax payers foot tthe bill some seem to forget federal& state dollars belongs to the tax payer not government,and im collecting the signatures to give tax payers the choice on how they want their money spent next stop the funds that the state proposed to help santuary city,s second language ect

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