The board of the MBTA delayed a vote on proposed service cuts that would severely limit some of its public transit offerings amid attacks from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and others.
The presentation of the proposal has been pushed back a week, with MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak announcing at the start of a board meeting Monday that 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.
He did not say specifically what portions of the wide-ranging plan might be delayed or reconsidered, though members of the Fiscal and Management Control Board plan to discuss the topic later on Monday after an executive session to discuss collective bargaining.
The proposal would eliminate weekend commuter rail service, close 25 bus routes and several ferries and slash subway frequency by 20%, with the T stopping at midnight.
At a news conference earlier Monday, Walsh warned that the cuts would exacerbate the coronavirus crisis in Massachusetts: "These cuts would hurt our public health and our climate. It would cause more crowded buses and trains, increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19."
Pointing to recent developments on coronavirus vaccines, Walsh argued that there could be an increase in ridership soon. Thus, the decision should not be rushed.
Walsh urged the MBTA to "be creative," and realign their budget priorities, emphasizing that the cuts would disproportionately impact low-income workers, veterans and people with disabilities.
"The bottom line here is that these cuts are just simply wrong," Walsh said. "At this particular moment, these cuts would move us move the goal line further down."
Gov. Charlie Baker seemed to come down on the opposite side of the issue when asked about the proposed cuts Monday.
"I think raising taxes to run empty buses and trains is a bad idea," he said.
But other local officials, representatives from unions and community groups expressed concerned with the cuts.
"We are more reliant than ever on essential workers in our communities, many of whom depend on public transit and need it to be reliable, accessible and affordable," City Council President Kim Janey said. "The proposed cuts undermine the needs of our essential workers and the sacrifices they are making to protect our communities."
Janey claimed that the cuts fall in line with a "long history" of increasing fares while services continue to diminish.
"The so-called temporary cuts have had significant long-term impacts in the past, and begs the question, 'When will services be brought back?' The answer -probably never," Janey said. "The COVID-19 crisis cannot and must not be used to as a front to continue the dismantling of services our community so desperately need. We are here this morning to say no to any cuts in service."
Walsh added he hoped to work with the Baker administration as well as the incoming Biden-Harris administration to find an alternative solution to the budget deficit. The possibility of a federal stimulus package and "progress" on the current federal funding for transit, may make the proposed cuts "unnecessary," Walsh said.
"I'm confident that this Congress, along with the new president coming in, will pass legislation to deal with transit. Transit has to be addressed in this country. We have crumbling roads and bridges all across America," Walsh said. "If we don't address that issue on a national level, infrastructure will crumble, and what what type of country will be then?"Community Labor United Executive Director Lee Matsueda supported Walsh's argument.
"We have to allow time for relief and funding from the federal government to roll out support for the T. We can't jump to conclusions and make cuts that are going to be disastrous for our communities," Matsueda said. "We have to allow time for the vaccine we have to protect opportunity for economic recovery."
Walsh also referenced a recent study from the union-backed coalition, Public Transit Public Good, which estimated more than 800 jobs could be eliminated if the MBTA moves ahead with the service cuts.
In a report, the coalition 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.
"It's simply reckless to be making these cuts on a budget for FY22 with everything that's going on, especially when the impact is the greatest on those communities that have been hit hard by the pandemic," Matsueda said.
Last week, the MBTA Advisory Board -- an independent oversight panel -- said the MBTA overestimated its budget deficit and could erase its argument for the service cuts by using a less conservative outlook.
"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."
Many parts of the T's proposal, such as pausing capital projects and reallocating federal funds, are viable and important, the board said in its report. But the advisory board found the T's math to be unnecessarily cautious.
After doing its own analysis, the advisory board estimated the MBTA's fiscal year 2022 deficit plus additional risks totals $528 million, roughly 20% smaller than the total worst-case scenario gap of $652 million that MBTA budget-writers estimate.
That $528 million gap, according to the advisory board, leaves "no budgetary justification to cut so much public transportation service at this time."
Brian Kane, executive director of the advisory board, said in an interview that the difference in estimates could effectively cover all of the money the agency hoped to save next fiscal year by slashing weekend commuter rail service, eliminating 25 bus routes and some ferries, reducing subway frequencies and more.
"To us, that negates the need to do service cuts," Kane said. "We think they still should do the other pieces they're talking about, the capital reallocations, and those are painful. That means stations in Lynn and Winchester and South Attleboro will not be done when they're supposed to be, but we think that's better than cutting off thousands of people that rely on these services."
MBTA officials and the Baker administration have argued that cuts are necessary to help close a budget gap of $584 million to $652 million in fiscal year 2022 and responsible given that ridership has dropped to only about a quarter of pre-pandemic levels.
Leaders at the transit agency say the cuts will not be permanent and that they will restore some portions once they have a stable funding source or if ridership returns in high volumes, but the timeline on those steps could stretch several years long.
The advisory board conceded that it would be unwise to run a full slate of vehicles on pre-COVID schedules in the current environment, but its members -- who represent 176 cities and towns that direct tax dollars toward the T -- said the agency is acting too drastically.
Kane said the T should not "use a global pandemic to do a service plan."
"The T has existing management rights to do things like run less frequent service and run shorter train sets. They're already doing that. They've truncated some bus lines and consolidated others," Kane said. "Cut back, don't cut off. If you have to run a smaller boat to Hull, go ahead. Don't stop running boats to Hull. That's the difference."
Kane said the advisory board believes the T used excessively conservative estimates, did not factor in federal rebates the agency often receives and planned for greater expenses on COVID-era cleaning than might be necessary.
Under its current plan, Kane said, the T will build its budget not only to close the budget gap but to surpass it and end the FY21-22 two-year period with a net surplus of $73 million.
"My folks just don't feel like the T should be generating a surplus by eliminating public transportation," Kane said. "It's just not right."
More Coverage on Proposed MBTA Cuts
In response, T officials cautioned that the agency faces limits to federal reimbursement despite the advisory board's suggestions. Even using the outside panel's estimates, the T would face a budget gap of around half a billion dollars.
"The scenario planning utilized by MassDOT and the MBTA for the Forging Ahead Initiative includes multiple scenarios with COVID-19 abatement beginning in the second quarter of FY21 and no scenario predicts ridership returning to pre-COVID levels by 2022," Poftak said in a previous statement. "The MBTA is planning for future service adjustments now as they require months of lead time to finalize and implement, and saving resources now while ridership has decreased by 75% will help the MBTA bring back service when it is needed after the pandemic has faded."
Advisory board members called for the MBTA to create a "Return to Service Commission" including riders, employers, business leaders and municipalities to help guide the process of planning the agency's operations amid COVID-era ridership fluctuations.
Poftak said the T "has no plans for a Return to Service Commission," pointing instead to existing avenues for public feedback.
Despite widespread public opposition and many critical comments from lawmakers, legislative leaders have not intervened to alter the T's plans beyond language in budget bills under consideration pushing the agency to restore cut service with any additional federal funding it might receive.
The House continues to back a package of transportation-related tax and fee increases it passed in March aimed at generating more funding for the MBTA and other agencies, while the Senate has shown little to no interest in approving the hikes during the pandemic and related recession.
Kane argued that the T's current fiscal crisis points a spotlight at its underlying structural problems. Lawmakers might be hesitant to act again, he said, but the debt the T carries and its flawed funding structure create problems that cannot be addressed with increased operating funds.
"Just tacking more money onto the operating budget every year is not a solution to the fundamental, underlying illness the MBTA has in its financing structure, which I would argue is on the capital side," Kane said. "The T is the only large transit system in America without a dedicated revenue source for its capital budget, so everything they get is borrowed money."
"Until that is fixed, we're going to keep finding ourselves here," he said.