It's the first Monday since the first phase of cuts negotiated over the summer took effect at the MBTA, as COVID-19 pulled ridership to historic lows. Almost all weekend commuter rail service is now suspended, ferry service has been reduced significantly, and additional cuts to subways and busses are in the works. Governor Charlie Baker says that, as a general rule, running empty trains and busses is bad public policy — a line of thinking that The New York Times editorial board called "small minded and shortsighted" over the weekend. GBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Chris Dempsey, Director of the Transportation for Massachusetts Advocacy Coalition. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: So was this about riders or money? And I ask you that because the T has gotten some help in the pandemic. The federal government giving over a billion dollars [for] the next 12 months to keep service running. But we see the cuts regardless. And of course, as I mentioned, our governor says there's no point in running empty trains. What's behind all this?
Chris Dempsey: The Baker administration's decisions here are very unfortunate and disappointing. You know, we agree with the governor that we shouldn't be running empty trains and busses. No one is advocating for that. But the reality is that there is still ridership on the MBTA every single day. Hundreds of thousands of people taking the bus, taking the subway, commuter rail and ferry who are making essential trips. They are essential workers. There are folks that are getting to the grocery store, to health care appointments, to school. They're not out there joyriding. They're doing it because they have to be there. And in many cases, they're the very folks that are keeping us safe, keeping us healthy, getting us vaccines. We need the service to be there for those people. We spent the last 10 or 11 months calling those folks our health care heroes, and now we're pulling the rug out from under them as they're just trying to get to work.
Watch: What is the biggest worry right now about the cuts?
Mathieu: Or they're going to return to their cars, which is a whole other conversation. But Chris Dempsey, The New York Times op-ed that I mentioned says service cuts are also self-perpetuating. Is that the conversation that we should be having? Obviously, there are issues right now, but you're worried about whether they're ever going to come back?
Dempsey: Yeah, I think we're really worried about both. And Joe, you talked about congestion. It's actually not a whole separate conversation, right? It's exactly the same conversation because every day people get up and they decide whether they're going to take transit or whether they're going to drive. They make decisions about where to live based on is there good transit access or are they going to be driving instead? And if we fundamentally say that transit in greater Boston should be smaller and less robust, less reliable than it was before the pandemic, we are fundamentally changing the character of greater Boston and really the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The New York Times in that editorial — which is a lengthy one and I encourage your readers to check it out — talks about how transit really underwrites society, whether that's access to health care, whether it's things like density, you know, downtown areas like downtown Boston or Kendall Square or the Longwood medical area, they fundamentally do not work. If our transit system doesn't work, you can't get that number of people in and out of that area without transit. And so we're essentially selling those places short, writing them off and saying those places are no longer important to us if we don't fund transit properly and provide the service that we need.
Mathieu: There's, of course, the big COVID story here. This is happening because of COVID; people started working from home. With regard to the cars, though, the reason why I said a separate conversation — and we can do it all right now — is because even when people are coming back to work, they might not feel safe on public transportation. And I wonder how much of a concern that is for you because people are buying cars again. Chris, we're seeing these used cars and new cars at levels we haven't noticed in quite a long time. Let's say the T goes full service, but people are afraid to take public transit. Then what?
Dempsey: Well, look, I think that we need to get people vaccinated because that's going to actually solve this issue. And we need to be focused on that question for sure. It's totally understandable that people have a fear that public transit might be a vector for the disease. You know, there's really nowhere else in greater Boston in our daily lives where you're as close to a stranger as when you're packed on to a commuter rail train or a green line train at rush hour. That's right. It's pretty uncomfortable. And so you think, "Well, gee, I'm not supposed to be around strangers. That's what all the experts are saying. I shouldn't be on public transit." But in fact, there is not significant evidence, really any evidence at all that public transit has been a vector for the disease. People are pretty good about wearing masks. There's enough separation because of the lower ridership. We have not seen cases tied to public transit in Boston or really anywhere else in the country or the world.
I am not dismissing the fear that people have. There's a basic discomfort and I've had it myself in the times that I've taken transit since the pandemic. I was on the T Saturday and it's not nearly as frequent as it was before the pandemic. But I have been riding it on occasion, mostly to do things like go to the grocery store. And the answer here is to get people vaccinated. We want to do that as fast as possible and get back to normalcy. You know, actually, the MBTA first announced these service cuts in early November, coincidentally, the very same day that Pfizer announced that its vaccine had been successful in the trials, so the T was planning this long before we had some hope that we're going to come out of this pandemic. And again, it's another reason we think they should be reassessing [the cuts]. In addition to the fact that they've received another 300 million dollars in federal aid that allows them to end these cuts and go back to regular service. And they're making a choice not to do that and to continue the cuts instead.
Mathieu: Chris Dempsey, Director of Transportation for Massachusetts, appreciate your checking in this morning. Let's talk again when the subway and bus routes are added to this. Appreciate your insights.