Riders scarce at the T in first quarter

The MBTA’s first quarter financial report for the fiscal year wasn’t very good, so the transit authority tossed in some potentially promising news from the next quarter.

The T has been struggling to convince riders to return to its subways, buses, and commuter rail lines, and results from the first quarter (July, August, and September) suggested they are continuing to stay away.

Fare revenue averaged $30 million a month during the quarter, roughly half of what it was prior to COVID. The shutdown of the Orange Line from August 19 to September 19 for major safety repairs didn’t help.

But preliminary October numbers showed some improvement, with fare revenue rising to $33 million, or 54 percent of pre-COVID levels. That would be the highest percentage since at least July 2021.

Ridership and fare revenue are important to the MBTA’s financial health, but they also have broader ramifications for the state’s efforts to fight climate change and bolster the economy. That’s why fare revenue and ridership are being watched so closely at the T.

The T has developed three post-COVID ridership scenarios, featuring a low, middle, and high estimate. None of them envision passenger levels returning to pre-COVID levels over the next five years, but there is a significant variance between the three projections.

The fiscal 2023 budget is based on the middle ridership projection, but lately the numbers have edged closer to the low estimate, coming in $28 million less than expected during the first quarter.

First quarter financial results, released at a subcommittee meeting of the MBTA board on Thursday, indicated fare revenues totaled $89 million, while expenses were $560 million. Expenses were $71 million lower than forecast, in part because the T is having difficulty filling many vacant job positions.

The deficit between fare revenues and expenses was offset during the quarter by a strong increase in the state sales tax revenue the T receives and one-time federal and state revenues.

T officials are worried about what will happen once the one-time federal and state revenues run out. They anticipate that expenses will keep rising. “We expect the pace of spending to continue to grow over the months and years ahead,” said Mary Ann O’Hara, the T’s chief financial officer.

Capital spending at the MBTA, which is intended to improve the condition of the system, is also headed in the wrong direction. The capital spending goal in fiscal 2022 was $2 billion, but the final spending tally was $1.6 billion. The spending goal for 2023 is again $2 billion, but the T was off the pace needed to reach that goal by 18 percent in the first quarter. Officials say if current trend lines continue, capital spending will reach $1.74 billion this fiscal year.

The T’s financial numbers aren’t rosy, but the bigger concern is the lack of riders. Are they staying away because of safety concerns, or are they staying home because COVID has changed the way businesses operate? Or some combination of both. These questions will loom large next year as a new governor and legislative leaders on Beacon Hill debate what to do about the T.

BRUCE MOHL

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