MBTA's Cuts Will Make It Harder For Downtown Boston To Recover
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will scale back its subway and bus service next year, affecting the public transportation arteries into downtown Boston.
Systemwide cuts including commuter rail and ferry service are part of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board’s response to the coronavirus pandemic's devastating impact on transit demand. The reductions target small savings as an early Band-Aid before more drastic cuts are expected next year.
The cuts are another blow to small businesses in downtown Boston like Ogawa Coffee on Milk Street, which has experienced drastically lower foot traffic after months of office workers operating from home.
“Our business level right now is definitely not sustainable for another year,” Ogawa Coffee Manager Chris Marinuzzi said. “It’s not sustainable even right now.”
The café sits on the edge of Boston’s Financial District, steps from the Downtown Crossing and State Street subway stations. Marinuzzi estimated Ogawa has had a 60% to 70% decline in business during the pandemic, which has forced him to lay off more than half of his staff. With no rent relief or plans to hibernate, Ogawa is getting by because its Japanese owner is essentially subsidizing its losses, Marinuzzi said.
“We’re surviving these times because we have a parent company who could support us,” Marinuzzi said. “If we were a free-standing coffee shop, we’d be closed.”
The systemwide service cuts were approved Monday by a 3-2 majority of the MBTA’s control board, dampening hopes that public transit will support the weight of a potential vaccine-fueled economic rebound.
“Something we kind of really fail to think about [is] transit as an economic engine,” said Joshua Fairchild, president of nonprofit T watchdog TransitMatters. “All the jobs and all the business, not even counting all the real estate that’s generated, the GDP that’s generated based on the foundation of the transit system, that’s a pretty big part of the economy.”
Schedules for the T’s Green, Red and Orange lines all serving downtown Boston will be cut 20%, while East Boston’s crowded Blue Line service will see a 5% reduction. The MBTA's little-used commuter rail won’t run after 9 p.m. on weekdays, and on weekends, only the system’s five busiest lines will operate on a reduced schedule. More than 20 bus lines will be suspended or reduced, and ferry service to South Shore points will be pared back.
During Monday’s four-hour FMCB Zoom hearing, officials said the changes were designed to meet ridership levels rather than achieve a specific budget target, and they will still leave the system with a significant fiscal hole.
Lower fare revenues, COVID-19 spending and increased overtime will cause a $79M budget gap in FY21, which ends next June, and a $584M shortfall in FY22, according to a presentation by the board.
More severe cuts had been proposed, including suspension of all commuter rail and ferry service, prompting public outcry. Reaction gathered by the T in 10 public meetings and 6,000 comments in the last month focused on the timing of the cuts as riders anticipate a return to work.
Community leaders and elected officials slammed the proposed rollbacks ahead of the fiscal board's scheduled vote on Dec. 7, and that vote was postponed before the T softened the cuts.
An effort by Massachusetts State House Democrats to raise taxes to offset the MBTA's shortfalls failed earlier this year, and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker last week opposed the same calls to increase levies in support of “empty busses and trains," Boston.com reported.
“I think that the community does not have faith in us that we will make the changes in response to ridership, and that we are going to try and continue to achieve savings as opposed to being responsive to the services we actually need,” FMCB Vice Chair Monica Tibbits-Nutt said in the meeting Monday.
Downtown Boston offices were currently 8% to 12% occupied, according to a CBRE Q3 2020 office report, and many restaurants have made the decision to close for the winter and hope to reopen in spring. Hopes of a quick economic recovery with the vaccine rollout may also be overblown.
Improvements to the T were overdue long before the pandemic, and Boston’s transit system is in danger of falling even further behind the region’s economic growth, A Better City President Richard Dimino said.
“Boston, in short order, will start being the place that it was pre-COVID, which is one of the strongest economic centers in New England,” said Dimino, a former city transit chief. "When that rebound occurs, the transit system's going to have to be ready, too. It needs to start working now."
Long-proposed projects in Boston include a Red Line-Blue connector and North Station-South Station tunnel, but there is little hope for movement on them soon.
“We’re going to see the need for [the T] to be viable and stable but actually enhanced because Boston’s economy is going to move forward," Dimino said.
Ogawa saw business rise and fall with coronavirus case waves through the year, and the café faces new challenges in dine-in restrictions ahead of another wave of pandemic shutdowns in Boston beginning Wednesday. The shop needs workers to return to the Financial District sooner than later, Marinuzzi said.
“That’s what we’re banking on right now,” Marinuzzi said. “But I guess, there’s also the question of, like, will they ever come back in full?”