MBTA Service Changes for COVID-19 Include Cutting Charlestown Ferry Service

A new program for MBTA services looks to temporarily cut the Navy Yard Ferry service as the T moves to put scarce resources into the areas where ridership is heaviest and pull back from areas that have declined in ridership due to COVID-19.

As part of its “Forging Ahead” program in response to ridership changes, the MBTA announced on Nov. 9 several proposed changes to service, including potential cuts to the Navy Yard Ferry service, and looking for feedback from riders.

Ferry service remains at about 12 percent of pre-COVID ridership, which is about seven passengers per trip, MBTA GM Steve Poftak said. The MBTA is proposing to eliminate all ferry service “until ridership returns,” Poftak said. For commuters who rely on the Charlestown ferry, alternative service will be provided by the 93 bus, he said.

That has already gotten some pushback from the neighborhood. Michael Parker, president of the Friends of the Charlestown Navy Yard, said total elimination is a step in the wrong direction.

“While Friends of the Charlestown Navy Yard recognizes the challenges faced by the MBTA caused by decreased ridership during the pandemic, elimination of the water ferry service is a huge step in the wrong direction,” he said. “Many Charlestown residents rely heavily on the ferry because it is a reliable, and COVID safe, way to get to work, doctor’s appointments, shopping and other daily activities, especially with the North Washington Street Bridge construction still years away from completion.”

State Rep. Dan Ryan said he is going to look into how the ferry service can remain viable in this era of COVID-strained state resources.

“This pandemic has put a great strain on many of our government subsidized services,” he said. “The ferries are a unique form of mass transit. Their positive impact cannot be measured in traditional ridership metrics. This has always been the case. I’m going to work with MBTA to take a deep dive into the best viability of this service.”

Parker added that the Navy Yard and other waterfront communities have been working hard for many years on making water transit a new, more reliable option in Boston. He said they feel the elimination of ferry service could also eliminate all the progress made on water transit to date.

“Once we emerge from the Covid crisis, the water ferry promises to be an even more integral part of an expanded Inner Harbor transportation network, taking stress off the roadways and connecting neighborhoods all along the waterfront,” he said. “Eliminating ferry service may stall that much needed network for years. As we saw during the shutdown of the T during the winter of 2015, our transit system is an important part of our economy, cuts in transit service now will only make economic recovery from the Covid crisis longer and harder.”

Poftak said at the MBTA Fiscal & Management Control Board meeting on Monday that for next year, there is nearly a $580 million budget gap. He said the T is “in this position because of a tremendous loss in fare revenue as ridership has decreased,” and there is “very low ridership on certain services.” He added that “the service reductions are not intended to be a permanent shrinkage of MBTA services.”

Changes are proposed across the range of services offered by the MBTA, from rapid transit to ferry to the commuter rail to bus service. Starting this week, the MBTA will be engaging the public through virtual community meetings and a public hearing to gather feedback about the proposed changes to service. There is also an online comment form for riders to provide questions and comments.

“The MBTA’s fare revenue, while above the lowest levels seen at the beginning of the pandemic, has remained at unprecedentedly low levels and the ongoing impact of COVID-19 in Massachusetts is likely to limit our path to recovery,” Poftak said in a video posted on the MBTA’s Forging Ahead webpage.

He said that the T is currently still only running about 330,000 trips during an average weekday, but is running about the same level of service as it did to have 1.26 million trips before the pandemic hit.

“This level of service delivery, along with the loss in revenue, is not sustainable,” Poftak said.

He said that since August, ridership, along with fare revenue trends, have been monitored by the MBTA, and he said that the MBTA is “taking steps to control costs,” which includes “implementing a head count freeze, pausing executive pay increases,” and “updating our savings projection” from the RIDE service because of lower ridership.

Rapid Transit

Poftak said that a 20 percent reduction in frequency of rapid transit trains is proposed, and would be achieved by extending headways by about a minute.

“These changes are well within the service delivery policy that was passed in 2017,” he said, though he added that it is “obviously a reduction in service.”

Another large change proposed for rapid transit trains would stop service at midnight instead of 1am, and for the E Line to end at Brigham Circle, where passengers can transfer to the 39 bus for continued service to Heath Street.

Bus

Poftak said that bus service “remains among our most durable services in terms of ridership,” but changes are still being proposed including reducing the number of routes run as well as “consolidating and restructuring certain routes,” Poftak said. Some routes will also be eliminated. He said that 80 routes have been deemed “essential,” and 60 have been deemed “non-essential,” which could face a drop in frequency by 20 percent. Essential routes could see an aggregate drop in frequency by five percent, “but it will not be an across the board cut,” Poftak said, as crowding will continue to be monitored on bus routes and service can be adjusted accordingly.

Opposition

Many riders are concerned about these proposed changes, and have spoken out in opposition.  A coalition of “business, labor, transportation, and environmental justice organizations” has banded together to form a campaign called Transit is Essential. The campaign “will underscore the importance of keeping the T accessible and affordable to all,” according to a press release.

City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu has advocated for accessible and free public transportation throughout her tenure as a councilor. She tweeted on Monday, “How many more times do we need to say it?? It’s unacceptable & dangerous to cut public transit service—aka crowd people into more limited spaces—during a pandemic. @BOSCityCouncil voted to stand w 500+ people who sent in testimony opposing this at today’s @MBTA board mtg.”

City Councilor Lydia Edwards also spoke out in opposition of the cuts, tweeting “These service cuts would disproportionately affect essential workers in places like East Boston and will incentivize people to drive which will worsen traffic and pollution. We should be making it easier for people to take transit, not harder.”

State Senator Sal DiDomenico testified at the meeting on Monday, calling for the continuation of Phase One of the resolutions for the environmental justice corridor in the Fiscal Year 2021 and 2022 capital investment plan, including the electrification of the Newburyport/Rockport line, higher train frequency, and the fares set at the rapid transit rate.

He said that it is “a matter of environmental justice for those neighborhoods” in his district where the diesel engine trains emit exhaust.

“So many essential workers rely on public transportation,” he said, and they need to be able to take transit without worrying about crowding.

The proposed cuts are not yet set in stone, and the public is encouraged to provide feedback about the changes. A vote on the changes is expected by the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control on December 7. For more information on the proposals and to submit comments, visit https://www.mbta.com/forging-ahead.

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