Riders of MBTA trains, buses and ferries can expect to walk further and wait longer for service under a cost-cutting proposal rolled out recently by the board that manages the beleaguered transit agency's finances.

Plans proposed by T's Fiscal and Management Control Board call for cutting an estimated $130 million by shutting down two dozen bus routes, slashing ferry service and eliminating weekend service on the commuter rail, which has a stop in Andover.

The agency is facing a massive budget gap in the fiscal year that begins next July, now estimated at nearly $580 million, caused in large part by declines in ridership due to the pandemic.

"We are in this position, obviously, because of a tremendous loss of fare revenue as ridership has declined across a number of our services," MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said during a live-streamed meeting. "The reductions are not intended to be a permanent shrinkage of MBTA service."

Poftak said ridership on buses, subways and trains averages about 330,000 trips per day during the week, but the agency is still providing service at pre-pandemic levels. He called that approach "unsustainable."

Under the plans, subway lines would run 20% less often during peak hours and 40% less frequently during off-peak times. Buses would also run at reduced frequency. Both subway and bus service would stop at midnight systemwide.

Commuter rail service would be dramatically cut by shutting down the system on weekends and after 9 p.m. on weekdays.

The plans also call for closing commuter rail stations, such as Pride's Crossing in Beverly on the Rockport/Newburyport line, and postponing a number of big-ticket capital projects, some of which have been in the works for years.

Transit advocates are warning against cuts and delays to improvement projects, such as studying electrification of buses and the commuter rail. They argue the cost cutting will slow economic recovery, increase traffic and pollution, and reduce access for riders who depend on the T.

"These cuts are drastic and could have long-term harm, potentially blunting our economic recovery," said Jarred Johnson, of the Boston-based advocacy group TransitMatters.

The plans also call for layoffs, through the size and timing of those reductions weren't disclosed.

Mike Vartabedian, a representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 15, which represents MBTA mechanics, said cuts will hurt workers and low-income riders.

"Job cuts or layoffs at the MBTA would hurt local families and add to our economic crisis," Vartabedian told members of the T's control board.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the cost-cutting will target services with low-ridership and "preserve and protect" service for those who most need it.

"Using limited resources to operate nearly empty trains, ferries and buses is not a responsible use of the funding provided to the MBTA by riders, communities and taxpayers," she said.

Meanwhile, transit advocates are looking to lawmakers to come up with new revenue to prevent deep MBTA service cuts.

Lawmakers were weighing plans to raise the state's 24-cents-per-gallon gasoline and fuel tax as well as other proposals for transportation revenue before the COVID-19 outbreak began. While those plans have largely been sidelined, advocates want lawmakers to revisit them.

The T tapped $720 million in federal pandemic relief funds to close a deficit in the current fiscal year, but it's not clear if additional federal funding will be available.

The cost-cutting plans would not raise fares, which went up last year on the commuter rail and subway by about 6% to fund improvements to the aging system. State law limits MBTA fare hikes to 7% over a two-year period.

The T's control board has set a series of virtual public hearings in the next week to discuss the cost cutting plans, ahead of a planned vote at its Dec. 7 meeting.

For more information: www.mbta.com/forging-ahead

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

 

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