INVESTING IN TRANSPORTATION in order to create economic growth is a popular refrain. You’d be hard-pressed to find the business group, community organization, or transit agency that doesn’t talk that talk. But judging by the speed with which the MBTA shut down late-night service, it appears that the only economic growth that matters to the T happens on a 9-to-5 schedule.
Today marks the end of a public comment period to allow interested parties to weigh in about how best to mitigate the impact of canceling the late-night T program, a reasonable and productive step if it had come before the service was axed. Unfortunately, the MBTA is taking this step out of order. The Federal Transit Authority requires that the agency a) conduct a civil rights analysis of how the loss of late-night T operations could impact minority and low-income riders, and b) explore less discriminatory alternatives to lessen the impact of the program cut — all before ending service.
The numbers are clear about who will be impacted by this closing. According to the MBTA’s own data, in 2015, 54 percent of late-night riders were minorities and 64 percent were low-income. When the MBTA conducted an online survey about late-night T service, in 2013, 35 percent of the nearly 26,000 respondents said that they would use the service to get home from work, and about the same percentage said they would take it to get to or from school. Work where these men and women are contributing to the growth of our economy, and school where they are learning the skills they need to contribute in the future.
But late-night T service isn’t about numbers; it’s about people. People who contribute to our region’s economic growth. Their stories are numerous, and have been widely reported.
Earlier this year, WBUR told Melissa’s story. Melissa is a student at Bunker Hill Community College. She works in Boston as a waitress, and used late-night T service to get home after work. Melissa took the T because she felt safer with large groups of people on the train than she did being on her own in a cab or taking a ride-share service. Now, the T is no longer an option for her.
Last November, Boston.com profiled Reydi, who gets off work late at night, and for whom taking a taxi is too expensive. Without late-night service, the price to get home after work will go up significantly.
In the same piece, Boston.com covered Wan, whose work requires him to be out and about until 2 a.m. Wan has a bike, but prefers taking the T home from Boston to Cambridge, especially in the brutal winter months.
In recent years the state rightly invested in creating economic growth throughout the region. It invested in the Seaport by creating the Silver Line. It invested in Somerville with the new Assembly Station on the Orange Line. There’s the Fairmount Line, and the widely heralded renovation of the Government Center T stop. All of these projects are good news for some of the Massachusetts economy. Some, but not all. They leave behind the men and women who keep our economic engine running while those of us with the privilege of working during daylight hours are tucked into our warm beds.
When the state leaves behind people like Melissa, Reydi, and Wan, we fail twice: in economic growth, and in economic justice. As an economic growth failure, we stop short of reaching our Commonwealth’s full potential for economic success. We force the Massachusetts economy to slow down each and every night, and as a result we are leaving money on the table. As an economic justice failure, we don’t meet our moral obligation to create opportunity for each and every one of our neighbors, and to do so equally. We send a clear message that we care about the access that some people have to opportunity, but not others.
The MBTA has proposed late-in-the-game steps to mitigate the impact of the loss of late night T, but we fear they do not adequately address this dual failure. And so we have a simple ask of the MBTA: don’t fail us. Engage in this process in the manner prescribed by the Federal Transit Authority. Restore late night service, conduct the requisite equity analysis fully and in good faith, and then — if necessary — explore more equitable options to this vital service.
Michael Curry is president of the Boston NAACP. Jesse Mermell is president of the Alliance for Business Leadership.