By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON — The future of the program extending late night operation of MBTA trains and buses could be in jeopardy as state transportation officials look for ways to help solve for a massive mid-year state budget shortfall and plan for the next fiscal year’s budget.
The $13 million, year-long pilot started in March 2014, extending service by 90 minutes on MBTA lines and fifteen bus routes on Friday and Saturday nights until at least 2:30 a.m. The pilot has drawn 850,000 riders since its inception, according to the MBTA.
“The service has been run so far as a pilot and we were always going to come back to the board with the result of that pilot, both utilization by passengers and financial performance,” said Acting Transportation Secretary Frank DePaola, after a meeting of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) board of directors. “So I think it’s too early to say it’s on the chopping block, but in the light of our current state budgetary issues, we do have to be fiscally prudent here.”
The new fiscal year starts in July. At the board meeting, DePaola noted Gov. Charlie Baker’s estimate, announced earlier on Tuesday, that the current state budget deficit was $765 million.
DePaola said that MassDOT will have to look for $25 million in spending reductions for fiscal year 2015.
“I’d say it’s more of an important discussion for building our [fiscal year 2016] budgets,” DePaola told the News Service.
Asked by MassDOT board chair John Jenkins whether the late night service was meeting financial expectations, MBTA general manager Beverly Scott said the agency will be soon providing the board with a report on the pilot.
“The preliminary information we have is this: Roughly 20 percent of the people using the service are using the service to go to work,” she said. “And roughly two-thirds of the people actually using the service already have passes.”
Scott called ridership levels “very significant,” and said they have led to a reduction in the use of ride-hailing services like Uber.
“But on the economics side of the house there has been no golden spike,” she said, referring to the late-night pilot’s ability to bring in additional revenue for the agency. “That’s going to be a challenge.”
Jenkins said he wasn’t necessarily looking for a “golden spike.” “There are all kinds of reasons for doing it,” he said. “But it sounds like even with that in play, we’re not meeting our expectations.”
Janice Loux, a MassDOT board member, then jumped into the discussion. “Given the scarcity of resources and cutback, this service needs to, you know, do something in a positive manner or quite frankly I think it’s not long for this world,” she said.
Loux added that the 20 percent mentioned by Scott are the “working poor of the city,” hotel and hospital workers who sometimes receive cab vouchers from their employers when they’re working late. Other employers do not provide the vouchers, she said.
“It is always the case that the working poor gets hit over and over and over again in this transit system,” she said. “But having said that, I don’t think the [late night pilot] will last if the money is not there.”
Dominic Blue, another board member, said finding sponsors can be “hard,” but he hoped the agency was weighing ways to recoup expenses through a menu of options, such as a surcharge. “I would hate for us to cut the late night service because we’re not looking at this creatively,” he said.
“I understand all bottom lines, but personally I like the service,” Scott responded.
In the early 2000s, the MBTA ran a “night owl” bus service until budget cuts forced the agency to end the program in 2005.
Gov. Deval Patrick announced the new late night MBTA service last year, saying the pilot is a “result of listening to our citizens and trying to respond to their needs.”
“World class cities offer late night public transit to support the workforce and a vibrant nightlife, and Boston is a world class city,” Patrick said in the statement that accompanied a release touting the pilot.
Sponsors listed in the release included the Boston Globe, the Boston Red Sox, Dunkin’ Donuts, Suffolk Construction and the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. The release said they had contributed $1.5 million to the effort.
Future Boston Alliance was also listed in the release as launching a “grassroots” fundraising effort. According to its fundraising webpage, the group raised $5,629 toward a goal of $30,000.