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South Shore leaders, MBTA riders not happy about proposed cuts

QUINCY — Local officials and T riders from across the South Shore are asking the MBTA to limit looming service cuts in the region, especially a proposed temporary elimination of the Hingham and Hull ferry lines. 

The MBTA, facing a drastic drop-off in ridership and revenue amid the pandemic, has proposed cutting all ferry service; stopping commuter rail trains after 9 p.m. on weekdays and all together on weekends; eliminating and consolidating bus routes; and reducing the frequency of subway trains, including the Red Line, buses and commuter rail trains. 

In a virtual meeting Monday night, elected officials and riders asked the MBTA to spare the ferry in some capacity and rethink other cuts. 

"There just could not be a worse time to propose cuts to public transportation, which will hit hardest for low-income and essential workers in our community," said state Sen. Susan Moran, whose district includes Plymouth, Kingston and Pembroke. "The T was never set up to be a moneymaker. It's a fundamental service, and the key reason most of our neighbors have intentionally chosen to make their homes in this community."

The South Shore-focused meeting was part of a series in the T's effort to reach out to communities about the cuts and collect feedback. 

Among issues raised about the proposed cuts was the specter of putting more cars on the road, along with other environmental impacts and economic consequences. Cutting the ferry would mean stranding riders who don't have cars, opponents said, and the timing of the cuts, scheduled to come mostly in the spring of next year, could happen just as more people start going back to work and traveling.

Moran decried another proposal, the closure of the Plymouth commuter rail station, which she said is near a lot of dense housing.

State Sen. Patrick O'Connor, whose district covers Weymouth, Hingham, Hull and several other South Shore towns, said the cuts would be devastating and devalue a lot of investments, including affordable housing at the Hingham Shipyard. 

"While ridership is down, to scale it down is the right approach, but eliminating the (ferry) service entirely, even temporarily, would send the wrong message to a lot of people who live here on the South Shore," O'Connor said. 

In outlining the cuts, the T said it tried to preserve the majority of service for "transit-critical" populations: those with lower home- and car-ownership rates, communities of color, and those who live where there is high current or anticipated ridership.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack acknowledged the difficulty of the cuts and said they were only happening because of the loss of riders and their fares, not because the MBTA wanted to make them. 

"We are here because the pandemic has substantially changed where and how people travel, and this has resulted in a plummeting ridership and fare revenue," Pollack said. "When revenue and ridership support more service, service will be added."

The MBTA is trying to close a budget gap of about $584 million for fiscal 2022, and the cuts would save the T more than $140 million. The T said it's preserving about 82 percent of service overall after the proposed cuts, but only 65 percent of commuter rail service and 0 percent of ferry service, 

If the cuts go through, it would leave the town of Hull, a peninsula, without any public transit options. In addition to the ferry, the 714 bus line in Hull is on the chopping block, which would leave people like Tracy Campbell stranded. 

Campbell, a Hull resident who spoke at the meeting, said she doesn't drive and uses the bus line as part of a trek to get to her job in Boston, where she works with seniors. 

"It's essential to please try to keep the 714 in place. It's crucial here," Campbell said. "We don't have a lot of transportation options to get out."

State Sen. John Keenan, whose district includes Quincy, said the proposed consolidation of the 212 and 214 bus lines in Quincy would greatly affect seniors who live along the routes and use it for things such as grocery shopping. 

Because of the coronavirus, the MBTA said the commuter rail is carrying about 13 percent of normal ridership, with ferry service at about 12 percent, the subway at about 24 percent and buses at about 41 percent.

The 12 percent for ferry ridership is an average of all routes, including one in Charlestown, which is also set to be eliminated, and a Hingham-to-Boston leg that avoids Hull. 

Jennifer Berardi-Constable, chairwoman of the Hull Board of Selectmen, called the figure misleading because the Hingham/Hull ferry line by itself is carrying 23 percent of pre-pandemic ridership, according to the MBTA, a number she said is more in line with subways.

"Eliminating the ferry service undermines the millions in local and state investment already made that is supporting mixed-use development, affordable housing and again our local economies," Berardi-Constable said.

Several elected officials and riders said they would rather see a reduction in the ferry service than a wholesale cut, raising concerns about how long it to would take to resume the ferry service and how much it would cost to bring it back. 

Joe Sullivan, the former mayor of Braintree, said in an interview before the meeting he was part of a working group formed by the South Shore Chamber of Commerce looking at how the cuts would hurt businesses in the region. 

"If the cuts are too severe, it's going to take a long time to ramp back up," Sullivan said. "The ferry service for the South Shore is a necessity, not a nicety."

Jim Evers, president of  Boston Carmen's Union Local 589, which represents MBTA workers, said during the meeting he was skeptical of cut service returning at all. 

"Temporary closures usually are not temporary," Evers said. "Our elderly, disabled and communities of color deserve a system that isn't over a safe capacity and affords them the dignity and respect they deserve in a transit system."

Bob Lawler, general manager of Boston Harbor Cruises, which runs the T's ferry service, told The Patriot Ledger last week that about 140 people running the service could be out of work. The T has not outlined how many jobs might be lost by the cuts, and did not respond to a request for an estimate.

U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, whose district spans the coast from South Boston to Scituate, asked that cuts be pushed back during the meeting. Lynch said he believed there would be federal aid coming that could help the T. 

"There's every indication that we will have resources that would make a lot of these cuts unnecessary in the first place," Lynch said.

T officials have previously indicated, however, that even if a federal bailout arrives, the MBTA wouldn't necessarily be keen on adding service back if seats would still be empty, which could leave the transit authority making tough choices on cuts again when the money runs out.  

MassDOT has projected that it may take years for MBTA ridership to resemble pre-coronavirus levels. The agency projects MBTA crowds hitting 60 to 80 percent of previous averages by June 2022, depending on work and health trends. 

T officials expect to make final decisions about cuts in early December, and Pollack said they could look different from what the MBTA has proposed as the agency considers residents' feedback. 


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