Four questions for the MBTA’s Steve Poftak

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak came on the Codcast this week and we asked him about four issues: returning to full service levels, means-tested vs. free fares, fare verification efforts, and the new commuter rail schedule.

 Here’s what he had to say.

Returning to full-service levels. The T initially lowered its service levels during COVID to match lower ridership, but then encountered strong pushback from the state’s congressional delegation, which insisted funds from the third stimulus package should be used to maintain full-service levels.

 While the dispute was characterized as a test of wills, Poftak said it was more a question of timing. He said the T initially scaled back service to fit demand and save resources for when they would be needed. No T employees were laid off, but personnel lost through attrition were not replaced.

“When we put that in motion, we did it with the best of intentions of putting the T on a sustainable path,” Poftak said. He said that approach was scrapped when the congressional delegation made clear it wanted the money used to provide full service.

“We’ve really reoriented ourselves from trying to husband that stimulus money for as long as possible to bringing service back as soon as we can. We are full speed ahead right now,” he said, referring to efforts to replace workers lost through attrition. A planned layoff of 45 workers at Keolis Commuter Service was also scrapped.

Aside from the need for more employees, it also takes time for the T to build up to full-service levels. It often takes months to go through the union and logistical requirements of adding service, which means the T will slowly resume full-service levels, which raises its own set of issues. 

Even though ridership overall is roughly 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels, on some modes of travel ridership is much higher – 45-50 percent recently on bus and 43 percent on the Blue Line. On those modes, full service comes in handy as ridership bumps up against lower COVID crowding standards. A 40-foot bus used to be considered crowded with 58 people on board; now that same bus is crowded with 20 people on board.

“Even with a lower ridership level it does make sense to support higher levels of service to allow people to distance,” Poftak said.

But at some point the T will face a new set of problems if ridership returns and social-distancing standards are not eased. The T has only so many buses and employees.

 “At some point an irresistible force meets the immovable object,” Poftak said. “At some point we will hit a tipping point.”

Free service vs. means-tested fares. Politicians have been calling on the T to offer free service, while the Fiscal and Management Control Board favors fares based on the rider’s income level. 

Poftak doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about either approach. In general, he says, the T favors people-based fares rather than place-based fares, but the agency is also exploring running a free bus service pilot at the request of acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey. 

Fare verification system. Poftak says the T will probably hire between 80-120 people to verify riders have paid their fares when the T goes to a new cashless fare collection system.

Under the new system, buses and above-ground Green Line trains will open all their doors at stops and riders will board and pay by tapping card readers. By doing away with drivers collecting fares, the system should speed up boarding significantly. But it also means paying for a ride is something of an honor system – thus the need for a team of new employees who will verify that fares are being paid and assess new lower fines if necessary. 

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“We’re moving away from this culture of where the operator is the one who is notionally enforcing all the taps as people come through the doors,” Poftak said. “We’re trying to build a culture where everyone taps as they go in and just the prospect of being checked is enough to incentivize you to tap. There are many systems in Europe that do this.”  

New commuter rail schedule. Poftak said riders really like the schedule, which launched April 5 and features trains spaced out at regular intervals through the course of the day. “It’s easy to understand. It’s easy to plan your day around,” Poftak said. “We’ve seen an uptick of thousands of new riders or riders coming back even in the first week.”