Last week, MBTA officials presented the tough medicine the agency could take to zero-out its $42 million structural deficit, including slashing weekend commuter rail trips and special service for disabled passengers.
On Monday, MBTA officials offered up some options that might make the paratransit service reductions go down easier, and said there would also be a range of options related to the commuter rail.
"The goal is not to eliminate service. That is a last resort," MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve said Monday, echoing Gov. Charlie Baker's remarks on the idea, which the administration last week surfaced as a possibility.
In a briefing for reporters ahead of an MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board meeting, officials described how other services could potentially fill some of the void if the MBTA discontinues its paratransit services to suburban communities outside the T's regular service area. Shortsleeve said there would be discussion about potential weekend service reductions on the commuter rail next week.
"We're going to lay forth a whole bunch of options," Shortsleeve said about weekend suspension of commuter rail service. He said Keolis Commuter Services, the commuter rail vendor, would be pushed to develop better future weekend service and the T is open to "innovative" proposals from the private sector to serve commuter rail communities.
Shortsleeve penned a letter Friday to lawmakers about the proposed suspension of weekend service on the commuter rail, writing that the T will already need to suspend service on commuter rail lines for work on the Green Line Extension and to complete the federally mandated positive train control — an anti-collision safety measure. The potential of suspending weekend service is "on the table because the MBTA must at least examine the cost/benefit of high-subsidy, low ridership services such as weekend commuter rail," he wrote.
Options under consideration for The Ride passengers who would lose service to outer-lying Boston suburbs include partnerships with regional transit authorities, modification of service hours or coordination with Human Service Transportation, a state office under the Office of Health and Human Services, according to T officials.
At Monday's meeting, transit riders who use wheelchairs and advocates for paratransit urged the control board to reject the service cut that T officials expect would save $7 million.
James White, chairman of the Access Advisory Committee for the T who gets around in a wheelchair, said there are not existing services that could meet the needs if the T cuts The Ride service to premium areas.
"None of them are in any way positioned right now to pick up any of that slack," White told the News Service.
According to the T, about 19 percent — or roughly 10,000 — of its roughly 55,000 Ride customers use the service that would be eliminated, and premium trips would account for an estimated 11 percent - or roughly 215,000 - of the total fiscal 2018 Ride trips.
The premium service area includes locations more than 0.75 miles from bus or subway service. The towns of Medfield, Middleton and Topsfield would lose Ride service town-wide if the T followed through on the idea.
Corine Burke, a member of the Needham Commission on Disabilities, said her son relies on The Ride for safe travel to his job at WalMart in Walpole. About half of Needham and two thirds of Walpole is in the premium service area.
"He pays the extra premium to be dropped off at the door," Burke told the control board. She said, "If he were to lose this job because the premium service is discontinued, he would have an awfully hard time finding another employer who would support someone with such significant disabilities."
Carolyn Villers, director of Massachusetts Senior Action Council, said Human Service Transportation is only available to people who qualify for MassHealth and does not help people get to work or visit with friends.
"This proposal itself is creating great fear and anxiety in thousands of lives," Villers said. She said, "A year ago we urged you to see us as collaborators and partners. We have continued that in good faith. We urge you to continue to build trust in the community. But to come and blindside us with a proposal that will have such a devastating impact makes it very difficult for those of us that have a constituency that we are accountable to, to continue to come to the table when rugs are pulled right out from under people."
Last Monday, Baker administration officials floated service cuts to help balance the transit agency's $42 billion budget.
"This is really about resetting the MBTA's budget in a way that is financially sustainable not just for fiscal 2018, but over time," Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told reporters March 13. She said, "We need to ask questions, hard questions, about what we want to run."
"These are the things that have been left that haven't been done yet, and there's a $42 million gap to fill," Pollack said last week, describing a "menu of options" for balancing the budget. She said, "We definitely need to tap at least some of these options."