T board grapples with how to gauge ‘new reality’ for system

Budget and staffing strains still a major focus  

TWO WEEKS AGO, the MBTA board of directors sat quietly and had no questions for interim General Manager Jeffrey Gonneville after he reported on crippling delays in the delivery of new Red and Orange line cars from the Chinese-owned company CRRC. On Thursday, during a set of monthly subcommittee meetings, board members referenced recent press coverage of their livestreamed proceedings as they engaged actively with T officials, peppering them with questions and asking for more clarity during the numerically-dense briefings.

One central question that emerged as the board pondered a post-pandemic T was whether standard comparisons that have been used to gauge the system’s comeback continue to be helpful. 

The T still regularly compares revenue, ridership, and other critical metrics to pre-pandemic 2020 levels. For two years, that has yielded a bleak and uneven picture with cratered fare revenues – significantly better now than last year but still only about half of pre-pandemic levels – offset by federal pandemic aid.

“At what point, and I think the whole transit industry is grappling with this, do we move on from comparing to Quarter 2 in FY20? Have we advanced to the point where that’s not a useful comparison anymore?” asked board member Mary Beth Mello. “We’re in a different reality, we’re in recovery mode. We’re trying to do a lot of things, I know, to improve the system and improve ridership and attract more riders, but at what point is that comparison not helpful?”

David Panagore, the T’s chief administrative officer, assured Mello that the agency was reviewing an array of industry trends and academic reports, and also in regular communication with the Boston business community to compare rider surveys and worker numbers. He said the agency needs to ensure that new baseline measures reflect more established hybrid work patterns and ongoing disruptions from transit infrastructure repairs. “It will be a slow walk to that, not a clean break,” Panagore said.

A MassINC Polling Group survey in October 2022 found 68 percent of Massachusetts workers surveyed would like to work from home at least a few days a week. As for those who use the MBTA when they do commute to work, three-quarters of respondents rated the condition of the system as only fair or poor, with a solid majority supporting future subway shutdowns to handle needed repairs. 

Along with struggling to balance shrinking fare revenue with an expensive slate of long-term maintenance and emergency repairs, the T has been under pressure to hit safety and staffing directives from the Federal Transit Administration.

The FTA issued a withering report last spring on MBTA safety failures, and handed down a series of directives for bringing the system up to par. About $82 million of $378 million in one-time state funding appropriated specifically to address the FTA directives has been spent. Most of that funding has gone to the personal protective equipment and track maintenance category, where Katie Choe, the T’s chief of quality, compliance and oversight, said there has been some progress in reducing the slow zones that are lengthening passenger trips.

A slide deck Choe presented to the finance subcommittee showed speed restrictions on 6.7 percent of the system’s tracks as of February 1. MBTA service levels remain reduced with no clear endpoint, while the T continues to hire badly needed dispatchers and operators and make necessary repairs.

There has been little progress in the last two months in efforts to fill dispatcher posts in the T’s operations control center, officials said. The dispatcher shortage, one of the major safety issues highlighted by the FTA, has forced the T to reduce service levels on transit lines. 

The agency’s chief human resources officer, Tom Waye, told the board’s workforce subcommittee that 27 Orange, Red, and Blue line dispatchers are working in the center, with two additional full-time dispatchers and five backup dispatchers needed. 

Board members said working conditions at the control center need significant improvement to make the jobs attractive in the face of a dire labor shortage. The T will continue through June to offer incentives, including a $10,000 signing bonus, for new dispatchers to try to close the staffing gap.

Robert Butler, chair of the MBTA workforce subcommittee, worried about increased retirements over the past five years. Panagore confirmed that the agency is seeing an upward trend in retirements, which usually crest in the last quarter of the year. “This year was a little more significant than prior years,” he said, adding that the T continues to work on ways to boost training, retention, and hiring.

Staffing shortages are also complicating the T’s broader financial picture. Though the agency is spending less than its operations budget, despite inflation, Mary Ann O’Hara, the T’s CFO, said one major cost saving is something the agency isn’t happy about – lowered personnel expenses “due to the global labor shortage facing transit agencies.”  

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Jennifer Smith

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith is a staff reporter at CommonWealth magazine. A California native by way of Utah, Jennifer has spent the last 12 years in Boston, covering Massachusetts news for a variety of publications. She worked breaking news in the Boston Globe’s metro section and provided courtroom coverage of the Boston Marathon trial for the international wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) while completing her undergraduate journalism degree at Northeastern University in Boston. For four years, Jennifer worked as a staff writer and later news editor for the Dorchester Reporter, covering her home neighborhood and the city of Boston with a particular focus on politics and development. Her work and commentary have appeared in WBUR, GBH News, Harvard Public Health Magazine, and Politico’s Massachusetts Playbook. She has co-hosted MassINC’s Massachusetts politics and policy podcast The Horse Race since 2018, interviewing newsmakers, journalists, and elected officials across the state.

About Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith is a staff reporter at CommonWealth magazine. A California native by way of Utah, Jennifer has spent the last 12 years in Boston, covering Massachusetts news for a variety of publications. She worked breaking news in the Boston Globe’s metro section and provided courtroom coverage of the Boston Marathon trial for the international wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) while completing her undergraduate journalism degree at Northeastern University in Boston. For four years, Jennifer worked as a staff writer and later news editor for the Dorchester Reporter, covering her home neighborhood and the city of Boston with a particular focus on politics and development. Her work and commentary have appeared in WBUR, GBH News, Harvard Public Health Magazine, and Politico’s Massachusetts Playbook. She has co-hosted MassINC’s Massachusetts politics and policy podcast The Horse Race since 2018, interviewing newsmakers, journalists, and elected officials across the state.

Meanwhile, O’Hara said, fare revenue is tracking $85 million below that of fiscal year 2020. That means passenger fares are supporting less than one quarter of the T’s operating expenses, compared with about 43 percent before the pandemic, she said. The decline is being offset by strong sales tax receipts – the T gets 16 percent of state sales tax revenue – as well as one-time grants, including federal reimbursements for pandemic-related costs. 

O’Hara said the figures illustrate “the broader revenue challenge of the MBTA: Our revenue and funding is becoming more dependent on non-operating or subsidy revenue, and reserve one-time funds.” With ongoing safety investments and staffing increases, she said the pace of spending is expected to continue to grow over the months and years ahead.