Jarred Johnson, seen in 2019, is executive director of the advocacy group TransitMatters (Photo: TransitMatters)

The MBTA is at a turning point, set to get another round of disaster relief from Washington while making service cuts that its own advisory board said have “no budgetary justification,” as well as changing leadership after longtime Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has decamped for a position in the Biden administration.

Advocates for a better Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, such as the nonprofit TransitMatters, see the moment as a chance to push for long sought goals such as funding regional rail and buying fully electric buses, while pushing back against service cuts called disappointing in the face of upward of $2 billion in disaster relief coming to the agency.

“It’s definitely disappointing and, when you think about equity, one of the things that’s definitely concerning to us is that it’s not just about making sure the buses run in black and brown communities. Because there are people of color and there are low-income riders in nearly every part of the service area, and they work in practically every part of the service area,” said Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters.

The MBTA shows no signs of aborting subway and bus service cuts planned to begin Sunday, and commuter rail cuts go into effect April 5; Cambridge residents will notice the Fitchburg commuter rail line that goes through Porter Square no longer running on weekends. Six other lines will also lose weekend service – Greenbush, Kingston/Plymouth, Franklin, Haverhill, Lowell and Needham. A full list of changes is here.

TransitMatters believes these cuts “run the risk of making commuter rail less relevant to folks if they don’t start adding back weekend service,” Johnson said. There is worry the MBTA will enter a “death spiral” as cuts drive a cycle of fewer people using public transit, leading to further cuts down the line despite a current projected budget surplus.

Change in leadership

Jamey Tesler

Compounding the changes, Pollack announced Jan. 25 that she would become deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration. Pollack led the Massachusetts Department of Transportation since 2015, during crises that included the heavy snowfall of 2015 as well as the coronavirus pandemic. In her place, Gov. Charlie Baker appointed Jamey Tesler, the registrar of motor vehicles, as acting transportation secretary.

Advocates for expanded public transit see a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for mending relationships and working toward a budget with funds for transformational projects that will improve Massachusetts’ public transit. “I’m really hopeful that through public engagement and input, the capital planning process is going to be a lot more reflective of the priorities that have been talked about” such as regional rail and reversing service cuts, Johnson said. “I think [Tesler] is trying to repair some of the strained relationships the MBTA and MassDOT have had with advocates.”

A test will come as the MBTA starts planning its next budget, which is expected to start in July. With a faster pace of vaccinations resulting in a Fourth of July holiday that President Joe Biden said could “mark our independence from this virus,” the process could include preparations for a bounceback in ridership and plans to spend a disaster relief windfall to position the MBTA for the future.

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