MBTA: Our bus network isn’t working

Oversight board calls for ‘disruptive’ long-term changes

THE MBTA HAS CONCLUDED that its bus network, which handles more than a third of all of the trips provided by the agency, isn’t working.

On-time performance overall is 65 percent, well below the not-so-ambitious target of 75 percent. Feedback gathered by T staff over the last year indicates bus service is not reliable, too infrequent, overcrowded, and slow and getting slower.

T officials say they are working on a series of near-term measures to address service issues, but at Monday’s meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board members called for more disruptive long-term changes – not blow-it-up-and-start-over disruptive but pretty close to that.

“The goal of this is to be disruptive to the status quo,” said control board member Brian Shortsleeve, suggesting one option may be for the T to narrow its focus to routes with the highest demand.

Board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt put much of the pressure on the 50 communities served by T buses. She said those communities need to agree to implement measures to speed up bus traffic – options include designated lanes for buses and traffic light synchronization to give priority to buses at intersections.

“The infrastructure in these communities has to change or this exercise is a waste of time,” she said. “You have to give something up if you want better service.

Steven Poftak, another member of the control board, urged T staff to move as fast as possible to revamp the bus system. “This is a priority of this board,” he said.

Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, announced that the Barr Foundation has awarded a $900,000, two-year grant to the agency to hire staff to develop a closer working relationship with municipalities.

T staff is also coming up with ways to improve service in the short-term, including the addition of new early-morning and late-night routes and a task force to reduce the number of bus trip cancellations, which are typically caused when operators miss work unexpectedly.

Jessica Casey, the T’s deputy chief operating officer, said dropped trips have fallen 46 percent since early June, largely because the T has hired more full-time and part-time drivers who can fill in when a driver misses works unexpectedly. Casey said dropped trips on the troubled Route 111 bus that runs through Chelsea are down from 18.8 in the first week of September 2017 to 1.8 percent in the first week of September 2018. She added that the Charlestown Bus Garage had no dropped trips and no overtime on September 11, the first time that has happened in a decade.

Meet the Author

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.

But Casey said the overall number of dropped trips at the MBTA hasn’t fallen that much, if at all.

Even as the T tries to improve bus service, it is also laying plans to buy new buses and design garages that can better accommodate electric and hybrid vehicles. The current fleet consists of 1,024 buses with an average age of 7.3 years. The 10 bus garages are old – five were built prior to 1950, three were constructed in the 1970s, and the other two went up in 2002 and 2004. The current garages are relatively small with large parking lots; garages for electric vehicles may have to be big enough to accommodate the vehicles inside.

On the procurement side, the T plans to place an order for 194 new 40-foot, hybrid buses next month. It is also starting to experiment more with electric buses. One 60-foot hybrid bus is scheduled to arrive later this year that is capable of automatically switching between diesel and electricity and five all-electric buses are on order and should arrive in September 2019. The new hybrid and the all-electric buses are expected to be tested out on Silver Line routes that use the tunnel heading into the Seaport District from South Station. If the tests are successful, the buses could allow the T to do away with the overhead electric wires in the tunnel, where zero emissions are allowed.