Poftak says T riders still riding but taking fewer trips

New commuting pattern appears to be emerging

MBTA GENERAL MANAGER Steve Poftak said on Tuesday that nearly all of the transit authority’s riders are back riding the T, but traffic is off because they are not taking as many trips as they previously did.

“We’ve gotten back most of our riders. We just haven’t gotten back the rides,” Poftak said at a press briefing about repairs on the Orange Line. “Folks who were commuting five days a week are now commuting something less, one to three days a week. To the extent that there are possibly changes in commuting patterns, this fall is something we’re going to be watching closely.”

Poftak’s statement is the first time he has chalked up the decline in ridership almost exclusively to a decline in commuting activity. Previously, he and other MBTA officials have taken a wait-and-see attitude about ridership, developing revenue projections based on three different ridership scenarios.

The most optimistic scenario assumed ridership would gradually return to normal. The middle-ground scenario assumed “a new normal” as riders adapt to remote meeting and e-commerce technologies. The third, most pessimistic scenario assumed travel would be depressed and “telecommuting is standard practice.”

The current MBTA budget is based on the second scenario, which assumes a bump up in ridership this fall.

MBTA officials say internal data from the spring indicate about 70 percent of pre-pandemic Charlie Card riders are continuing to use the T but they are taking only about 43 percent of the trips they used to generate.

The Charlie Card data does not include commuter rail, which has been lagging the other travel modes, although it has seen a bit of a rebound during the Orange Line shutdown.

James Aloisi, a former secretary of transportation who serves on the TransitMatters board, said the T needs to try new approaches to bring back riders. He suggested more frequent service on commuter rail and bringing back more frequent service on subways and buses, which have to scale back runs because of worker shortages.

Ray Martin, the MBTA’s director of right of way maintenance, shows Gov. Charlie Baker a new cologne egg and how it compares to the old ones being replaced. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

At the briefing on Wednesday, which was held on the Orange Line tracks at Community Station near Bunker Hill Community College, Poftak said the MBTA was on the 18th day of the 30-day shutdown and 59 percent of the planned work is done.

Poftak said the T is “cautiously confident” the T is on track to complete all the work it planned over the 30-day period.

He said two of the six slow zones – stretches of track where speeds must be reduced because of track conditions – have been eliminated. He said 58 of the needed 60 new Orange Line vehicles are ready to return to service.

Poftak showed Gov. Charlie Baker around the work site, enlisting T personnel to demonstrate how track is being replaced and how long it takes to replace the 140 rail fasteners called cologne eggs. So far, 124 of the eggs have been replaced.