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 Boston Acting 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.

“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.” 

BRUCE MOHL

FROM COMMONWEALTH

The number of Department of Children and Families-involved adoptions finalized in Massachusetts has dropped during the pandemic, as has the number of reunifications, in which children are returned to their family. A major reason is COVID-related court shutdowns. The delays are raising concerns from some advocates who worry that children are taking longer to find permanent homes. Yet at the same time, the process of moving forward with adoptions right now also worries some, as trials are being held virtually on matters that have permanent impacts on children’s lives. Read more.

The Baker administration continued its retreat from measures that would have allowed a power plant fueled by wood to be constructed in Springfield. Two weeks ago the administration pulled the plug on an air permit for the biomass project and on Friday officials said they are scrapping regulations proposed just four months ago that would have allowed the Springfield facility or one like it to qualify for ratepayer subsidies under the state’s renewable portfolio standard. The officials also proposed that biomass power plants would not be allowed within five miles of an environmental justice community. Read more.

State regulators seem wary of expanding hemp sales. Read more.

Opinion:

Annamarie Hoey, a sixth grade student at the Rindge Avenue Upper School in Cambridge, says East Boston’s Maverick Square, named for the first slave owner in Massachusetts, should be renamed. Read more. 

Sen. Jamie Eldridge offers legislative fixes for problems affecting essential workers. Read more.

The real work begins now on dealing with climate change, say Winston Vaughan and Heather Takle. Read more.

Paul Hattis asks: Can Mass General Brigham integrate the operations of its hospitals to realize savings? Read more.

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

House lawmakers have filed more than 1,100 budget amendments. (MassLive)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Acting Mayor Kim Janey names Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, a Dorchester minister, to be Boston’s new chief of energy and environment. (Boston Herald

Taunton’s assessor says the city is losing $700,000 in tax revenue because of a dispute with the Boston Globe over the paper’s printing plant in the city. (Taunton Gazette

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Massachusetts enters the final phase of its vaccination plan. (Gloucester Daily Times) Some teenagers feel relief that it is finally their turn to get a shot. (Telegram & Gazette)

The Massachusetts Nurses’ Association is estimating that the seven-week nurses strike at St. Vincent’s Hospital has cost the health care system $40 million. (MassLive)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The Biden administration is ordering immigration agencies not to use the term “illegal alien” anymore, and instead use “undocumented non-citizen.” (NPR)

ELECTIONS

Some Boston city councilors want to move the city preliminary election to be held a week earlier than now scheduled in order to allow more time for mail-in ballots for the November 2 final election. (Boston Globe

A messy dispute over an obscure election for a Republican State Committee seat in Boston is still playing out — more than a year after the balloting. (Boston Globe

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The housing market in Western Massachusetts has become red hot. (MassLive)

The Massachusetts unemployment rate inched down to 6.8 percent in March. (MassLive)

Waltham-based Adagio Therapeutics has raised $336 million to advance its COVID-19 antibody therapy. (Boston Globe)

EDUCATION

Former state education secretary Paul Reville says the pandemic school disruption provides an opportunity to rethink K-12 education with a focus on personalizing the learning plan for students. (Boston Globe

Cornel West and Jeremy Tate decry Howard University’s decision to shut down its classics department. (Washington Post

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Boston Police are stopping fewer people, but blacks still account for the bulk of those stopped. (WGBH)

Advocates question the need to build a new women’s prison in Massachusetts. (Boston Globe

The Worcester police planned to add an “integrity” unit several years ago to look into police misconduct complaints, but will not release details about what happened with that unit. (Telegram & Gazette)

A federal review finds 10 “contributing factors” that led to Worcester firefighter Christopher Roy’s death from a 2018 fire. (Telegram & Gazette)

The trial of former Fall River mayor Jasiel Correia is set to begin Tuesday in federal court. (Herald News)

A Superior Court ruling calls for the restoration of a civilian police oversight board in Springfield. (MassLive)

PASSINGS

Former vice president Walter Mondale, who was also the Democratic nominee for president in 1984, died at age 93. (New York Times

Alma Wahlberg, the matriarch of the famous Wahlberg family who starred with her sons in a reality TV show and was the namesake of a popular Hingham restaurant, dies at 78. (Patriot Ledger)

Al Southwick, a World War II veteran and longtime Telegram & Gazette writer who lived in Leicester, dies at 100. (Telegram & Gazette)