MBTA leaves unanswered questions and little doubt about late night service

Today the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority held two of three scheduled public meetings on the future of Late Night Service. I went to the one at 5:00 pm, while an earlier one was at 10:00 am, at the Massachusetts State Transportation building in Boston.

Charles Planck, an assistant general manager of the MBTA, presented the case for ending the service. He said that with a $240 million deficit for FY 2017 and bigger ones expected for future years the Fiscal and Management Control Board is looking at reducing costs as much as possible.

Planck said that late night service cost $14 million a year and has had declining ridership since being introduced in June 2014. He added that the private and institutional sectors never stepped up as expected, only contributing around $100,000 to operating expenses. Moreover, extending the hours of operation on the subways and Green Line cuts in to the available time for maintenance.

Lastly, he said that the cost per passenger was $13 for late night service, as opposed to $1.43 for regular hours of operation.

“The MBTA must economize,” he said.

Planck said that there were two main options the MBTA is considering: eliminating the service with no replacement and issuing a request for proposals for a privatization.

Before moving on, it is worth noting that, given all of the other things that the FCMB has done, the public meetings seem to have been scheduled with a view towards eliciting as little notice and as few attendees as possible. Not only is 10 am a very bizzare time for a public meeting, but even five in the evening is still a time when most people are just getting out of work. On top of that, it was the State of the City address, so all eyes were on Boston Mayor Martin Walsh.

As for Walsh himself, given how important the T is to Boston and Boston’s economy, you’d think someone could be spared from the big speech to represent the City.

As it was, around 30 people showed up for the meeting at 5 and less for the meeting in the morning. There are no meetings planned for places like Chelsea or Malden, where a lot of the late night workers live, or for Allston or Somerville, where many of the people who want to stay up until 3 am live.

TransitMatters’ take on late night service also bears repeating:

It’s true that the MBTA’s current late-night service is not being used as much as was expected.  But we think this is not because the demand isn’t there – rather, it sometimes seems that the MBTA’s current late-night service was designed to fail.  Promises for additional outreach and marketing of the service were not fulfilled.  The routes do not connect efficiently nor form a comprehensive network and demand patterns were not restudied to see how they differ from daytime coverage.  The coverage area omits key low-income and environmental justice areas including large sections of Dorchester, Quincy, East Somerville, Everett, Malden, Lynn, and Waltham.

The few people who spoke were all supportive of keeping it.

“The service is vital to all of Boston,” activist Gabriel Distler said.

He said that the T needed to experiment with the service more and said it would be inexcusable for fares to be raised on par with Chicago and New York — which have overnight service — and the late night service here cut.

“A Better City would approve any effort to maintain late night service,” said Tom Ryan of that organization.

Ryan added that the existing service should continue until an alternative is put in place and said that if they do go the route of a public-private partnership,. the MBTA should seek relief from the Pacheco Law for it.

A few students spoke and said that the presence of late night public transit would be important in deciding where they moved after school and Bay Village resident Kenzie Bock scoffed at the MBTA comparing the per passenger subsidy for late night service with that of peak service, noting that the per passenger subsidy for commuter rail is higher.

The last person who spoke, a man from Allston who declined to give his name, said that the MBTA needed to do more analysis, have more meetings and look into wayts to reducing labor costs. He also urged them to look at using buses instead of running the trains overnight.

Unfortunately, the scheduling, the half-assed presentation (one unreadable graph) and the hostility towards the service by the FMCB all suggest that its fate has already been determined and these meetings are little more than a charade to create the illusion of public engagement.

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