If the MBTA shut down its commuter rail lines on certain weekends so it could knock out an agreed-upon list of repairs, riders would grumble, but they’d understand.
What’s alarming is the prospect of losing weekend service altogether — of seeing a standard feature of a normal transit network abruptly shelved, and without any larger vision for how the
T should evolve to serve a growing, changing region.
Earlier this week, the T’s management proposed to close a $42 million budget deficit with, among other moves, a one-year suspension of commuter rail on Saturdays and Sundays. Transit advocates squawked, for good reason. Ending weekend service for a year gets riders out of the habit of using it. A temporary suspension for budgetary reasons makes it easier to cancel the service permanently.
The proposal, which the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board will consider in coming weeks, also follows big fare hikes last year and the cancellation of late-night bus and subway runs. Higher fares and fewer services add up to a lousy sales pitch. If people who want to get around outside of weekday rush hour start writing off the T, the agency’s troubles can only deepen.
There are good technical reasons for some weekend closures: The T is required to install “positive train control” equipment on certain lines, and wants to make repairs on others, so why not get that work done in a swift, coordinated way?
Users of the state’s transportation systems can be patient when they’re given good reason to be. One clear precedent was the “93 Fast 14” program in 2011, in which the state Department of Transportation quickly replaced more than a dozen decrepit bridges within a few months by closing Interstate 93 on successive summer weekends. For drivers, MassDOT made the social contract explicit: Headaches now, but you’ll thank us later.
But for weekend commuter rail, “later” sounds a little iffy. If cutting all weekend trains is deemed essential to balancing the budget for 2018, why wouldn’t the same be true the following year?
T officials have talked about a “relaunch” of weekend service, in which the agency would challenge commuter rail operator Keolis to identify new products that require less subsidy — such as trains tailored to special events. The agency could also end up scaling back the least-used, most heavily subsidized weekend trains, such as on the Kingston/Plymouth line, but not more popular ones. In any transit system, there are tradeoffs; running fewer trains to points beyond Interstate 495 on Sundays might free up money for more buses serving the region’s inner core.
But if there’s an overarching strategy here, the T sure isn’t making it explicit. Indeed, Governor Charlie Baker and his administration haven’t spelled out a broader ambition for public transportation beyond straightening out the T’s finances.
Don’t get me wrong: Not hemorrhaging money is always helpful. Riders benefit when the agency saves money through privatization and renegotiates unwieldy work rules buried in union contracts.
What’s the endgame, though? The T is forever stuck between Beacon Hill, which treats transit riders as a special interest, and member cities and towns, which insist they can’t afford to kick in any more. Yet if the agency’s fate is to keep trimming back off-peak services so that it operates within today’s existing funding streams, it’ll never adapt to an economy that keeps functioning outside banker’s hours.