Amid shortage of riders, T to restore service
Agency lays out plan for spending $845m in federal funds
MBTA OFFICIALS said on Monday that they plan to restore bus, subway, and commuter rail service to pre-pandemic levels as soon as possible even though they are forecasting that ridership will not return to pre-pandemic levels for at least five years.
The T abandoned its plan to reduce service levels after being pressured by the state’s congressional delegation, which said there was no need to cut service levels because the federal government is preparing to pump $845 million in stimulus funds into the transit authority, on top of two earlier infusions of cash totaling $1.128 billion.
The MBTA signaled last week that it planned to restore service levels, but General Manager Steven Poftak and his staff provided many more details Monday at a meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, which approved the changes. Poftak said higher levels of service would be retained on some busy bus routes and said some routes that had been suspended (he specifically mentioned the number 55 and 68 buses) could be restored. He said a 20 percent reduction in subway frequency on the Red, Orange, and Green Lines will be eliminated and weekend commuter rail service restored on all lines. The control board approved resumption of direct ferry service from Charlestown and Hingham and more frequent service between Hull/Hingham and Boston.
Many of the changes were approved by the control board Monday on a 3-0 vote, with members Chrystal Kornegay and Tim Sullivan present but abstaining. No explanation was given for their abstentions.
Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair of the control board, said she was troubled to hear T officials couldn’t say when full bus service would be restored. “It does seem we are treating this as a second-class service,” she said.
Jeff Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, said restoring service to pre-pandemic levels hinges on a bunch of staffing variables. He said the transit authority is currently down about 12 operators compared to pre-pandemic levels and is losing between 9 and 12 a month due to attrition. Poftak said the T is aggressively expanding its hiring efforts to close the gap.
Gonneville said the agency is also struggling with a high rate of employee absenteeism caused by COVID-19 – 43 staffers are currently infected and T officials say one infected person typically means two others are out for testing or in quarantine.
Gonneville said the absence of any training classes for new operators for the past several months and crowding standards on buses and subways, which limit how many riders they can carry, are also having an impact. Gonneville said the bus crowding standard is currently 20 passengers.
The T also has difficulty ramping up and down service because of the long lead times required to select employees for routes. In the meantime, the T intends to ramp up bus and subway service by running more buses and subways where passenger levels warrant it; the ad hoc service won’t show up on schedules, but it will help speed up service.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation prodded the T to restore service levels, saying it was unconscionable that the agency would be cutting service while awash with federal funds from the latest federal stimulus package. But aside from vague statements about potential overcrowding and poor service for essential workers, members of the state’s delegation have not addressed the issue of buses and trains running with relatively few riders.
Bus service is currently the top performing mode, running about 180,000 trips a day, or about 43 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Subway and commuter rail are worse off, operating at 24 percent and 11.2 percent of pre-pandemic levels, respectively.
Once the federal funds run out, the T is currently forecasting budget deficits of $202 million in fiscal 2024, which begins July 1, 2023, and deficits of $458 million in fiscal 2025 and $495 million in fiscal 2026.
The T is currently going with the most pessimistic forecast for ridership of three scenarios under consideration. There was some talk at Monday’s meeting about adopting a more optimistic forecast, but the board ultimately decided not to do that because even with the most optimistic scenario the federal money eventually runs out and deficits surface.
“One way or another this is going to be a long-term structural deficit,” said control board member Sullivan.
Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board, pressed the T staff to get more aggressive in addressing the agency’s looming budget problems by transforming the way the agency operates. “The T that exists today cannot continue to exist in fiscal 2024 and fiscal 2025,” he said.
For example, Aiello said, a new fare collection system is being developed that its backers said will help the T to recover some $40 million in uncollected fare revenue. Aiello asked whether that estimate was incorporated into the budget projects, and was told it was not.Aiello said the T can increase productivity by shifting to electric trains and buses, which require less maintenance. He said new Green Line cars will allow one driver to transport as many passengers as two do currently. And he said the new commuter rail schedule coming April 5, which features service spread out over the course of the day rather than concentrated at peak periods, will generate tens of millions of dollars in savings. More labor savings may be possible once trains equipped with automatic doors pull up to stations with door-level platforms, dispensing with the need to have conductors opening doors at each stop.
But some of the productivity gains that Aiello was talking about are likely to face opposition from members of the congressional delegation, who complained when 40 assistant conductors were going to be permanently furloughed with efficiencies realized from the April 5 changes on commuter rail. The T eliminated those furloughs after US Rep. Steven Lynch complained.