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MBTA May Terminate Night Owl Bus Service

By Anthony Flint

THE BOSTON GLOBE

Desperate to dig out of a $16 million budget hole, the T is considering cutting the Night Owl bus service, which ferries late-night passengers home on weekends, after the rest of the transit system shuts down, a top MBTA official said.

In addition, seven bus routes -- privately operated, but funded by the T -- that average a total of 1,750 weekday passengers from the suburbs into Boston and from Framingham to Marlborough are being targeted for elimination. The state has not decided whether it will pick up the $2 million annual cost to run the routes.

The Night Owl service, begun in 2001, has been singled out for elimination first, because revenue from its relatively small ridership does not come close to covering the $1.4 million annual cost. The bus service, which some say helps to prevent drunken driving, has been cut back, but may have to go entirely, the senior MBTA official said this week.

The T has to come up with $16 million in savings to bring its $1.1 billion budget into balance by the time the fiscal year ends next summer. Much of the focus is on trimming the payroll through retirements, a hiring freeze, and, as a last resort, layoffs, said the T official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But cuts in service must also be considered, and routes with low ridership are the natural first candidates, the official said.

This month, the T said that after Jan. 2 it would close two Boston Harbor ferry lines, from North Station to the South Boston Waterfront and to Charlestown, arguing that the low ridership didn’t justify the $710,000 annual cost.

Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said, “We are not ready to get into specifics, and no final decisions have been made.” But he added that “corrective actions will have to be taken.”

This month MBTA General Manager Michael Mulhern blamed the budget shortfall on unexpectedly high fuel prices and sharp increases in healthcare costs for the T’s approximately 6,000 employees.

The shortfall is not because of decreases in ridership, MBTA officials say, though the agency has been unable to attract many new riders since an across-the-board fare hike took effect in January. Two years ago, a similar $18 million budget gap was attributed to a decline in riders and a decrease in state sales tax revenue.

Mulhern is preparing to go before the MBTA board as early as next month with recommendations to close the budget gap.

Mulhern has also said that the budget problems illustrate why the T cannot afford to expand without more money from the state. Local officials, residents, and environmental activists are pushing for projects, including those promised 15 years ago in return for the Big Dig.

The Night Owl is made up of five local bus routes -- between Government Center and Newton and Watertown, between Harvard Square and Roxbury, between Roxbury and Mattapan Square, and between Harvard Square and Roxbury via Allston and Brookline -- and nine so-called rail buses that parallel subway lines, all running from 1 to 2:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. The fare ranges from $1.50 to $4, compared to the usual fare of 90 cents.

The service started off with a bang, but ridership dwindled last year to an average 1,900 per weekend night. It brought in only $24,500 in cash in 2002.

Those who argue for keeping the service, including nightclub owners and Councilor Michael Ross, who represents Back Bay and Fenway, say that few world-class cities shut down their public transit as early as 12:30 a.m., as Boston does.

Instead of eliminating the Night Owl, Ross said the service should be expanded, possibly to the overnight hours from Thursday into Friday.

“It’s working for young people, working people, and anyone who can’t afford an outrageously expensive cab ride late at night,” he said yesterday.

Within the MBTA, however, the service is viewed dimly. Drivers must be paid more to work the Night Owl’s hours. Even with the higher fare, there aren’t enough riders to cover the costs of operating the buses, T officials say.

The same is true, T officials say, for the regional bus lines that the T is considering cutting: six privately operated weekday routes feeding into Boston from Taunton, Northborough, Newburyport, Worcester, Hudson-Marlborough, Plymouth via Kingston, and Plymouth via Duxbury and Marshfield, as well as one bus from Framingham to Marlborough.

“These are low-volume, high-subsidy routes,” the senior T official said.

The Northborough-to-Boston line gets the lightest use, with an average of 20 riders per weekday, while the Plymouth-to-Boston lines are the most popular, with 445 riders per weekday. By contrast, the most heavily used T buses carry several thousand people every day.

The T was forced to pick up the annual $2 million cost of those suburban routes in 2000 when the Legislature did not include it in the state budget. Budget-cutters at the T are hoping the state will take over funding the routes, but otherwise are ready to shut off T funding, which would end the service.

Jon Carlisle, spokesman for state Transportation Secretary Daniel A. Grabauskas, confirmed that “reductions in the [suburban] bus program are on the table for discussion at the T.”

“The state would have to employ the same kind of critical eye to the maintenance of the bus service that the MBTA does,” he said.