MEDFORD, MA — Proposed service reductions are a "last resort" for the MBTA, which is facing a $579 million budget gap in Fiscal Year 2022, officials said. At a virtual meeting Thursday night, the agency laid out how planned cuts will impact the Minuteman region, which includes Medford, Arlington, Burlington, Belmont, Lexington and Bedford.
"I want to emphasize that we do not want to reduce service," Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville said.
The MBTA took a three-pronged approach to addressing the budget shortfall – evaluating all internal spending to reduce expenditures, reallocating funds from the capital budget to support the operating budget and, lastly, prioritizing essential transit services while reducing service on others. Officials stressed that cuts came only after the agency had exhausted the first two options.
"This is not just a six-month or one-year budget crisis. It's a sustained budget crisis," Kat Benesh, the MBTA's chief of Operations Strategy, Policy, and Oversight, said.
The MBTA projects service reductions will save $125-$130 million a year, not accounting for fare losses. The agency is not planning any fare increases across the system.
The pandemic torpedoed the MBTA's ridership, and four months after Massachusetts started reopening, the agency is still at a fraction of its pre-COVID levels. The MBTA averages about 330,000 trips on a weekday, while running roughly the same amount of service it ran a year ago to serve 1.3 million trips.
The Commuter Rail is at about 13 percent of regular ridership; bus ridership is at 41 percent; and Rapid Transit ranges from 20-37 percent of ridership across all four lines. Rapid Transit frequency has been reduced by about 20 percent, but service remains at 100 percent for the Commuter Rail and buses.
Ferries, meanwhile, are averaging about seven riders a trip and operating at 75 percent of service.
The proposal calls for cutting ferry service altogether, eliminating and consolidating certain bus lines, closing some Commuter Rail stations and otherwise reducing service on Commuter Rail and Rapid Transit lines.
The aim is to protect essential riders, such as low-income commuters, people of color, seniors, people with disabilities and low- or zero-vehicle households. The majority of cuts are not intended to be permanent, but some routes could look different when they return.
"Ridership is going to come back at different times around the system, and our proposals are trying to take that into account," Benesh said.
Here's how those changes would impact the Minuteman Region:
Several residents spoke at Thursday's meeting, many of whom explained how they would be directly impacted by the cuts. A manager at the Wegmans in Medford, who identified himself as Chris, said about 40-50 of the supermarket's employees take public transit nightly.
"We are very concerned this will be a real hinderance," he said.
A resident of North Medford said the 710 bus is her only means of getting to Medford Square from her house and asked whether the route, which is slated for elimination, will be brought back in the future.
"When we bring back routes in a year, two years, three years, the intent is still to provide the same level of access, but the route structure may not look exactly the same," Benesh said. "Or it may look the same."
The MBTA tracks ridership daily and knows when and where people get off at every stop along a particular route. Gonneville said some changes, like the consolidation of bus routes 62 and 76, are not being considered permanently.
"Once we see demand is at a point where it needs to be, we can separate them," Gonneville said. The MBTA outlined how much it will cost to add onto the base service being proposed:
Nearly a dozen public meetings will be held over the next month before the proposal goes before the Fiscal Management and Control Board for a vote in early December. If approved, changes would be implemented on a staggered basis; Commuter Rail cuts would come in January and May, ferry and Rapid Transit reductions are slated for March and bus cuts would be made in late June.