Poftak wary of taking hard policy stances at T

Adopts pragmatic approach on face coverings, bus capacity, oversight

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER’S order requiring all passengers on the MBTA to wear face masks or face coverings took effect last week, but don’t expect strict enforcement by the state’s transit authority.

Steve Poftak, the T’s general manager, said the order exempts people who are unable to wear a face covering because they have a medical condition. He also noted that the order doesn’t require someone claiming a medical condition to provide proof of the condition.

“We won’t be refusing rides to people who are not wearing face masks,” Poftak said, quickly adding that “obviously we want the wearing of face masks to be the normative.”

Making his first appearance on the Codcast, Poftak said the T is facing a time of great uncertainty, with fare revenue currently 10 percent of its pre-COVID level and not expected to reach 60 percent until June 2021. Budgeting over the next two years won’t be easy, and polls suggest convincing riders to return to the system will be difficult. Befitting someone who has the governor, the secretary of transportation, and an oversight board looking over his shoulder, Poftak is very cautious about adopting sharp policy stances.

Last week, during a presentation to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Poftak and state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said they were exploring ways to make bus riders feel safe once the economy starts reopening. One option under consideration is reducing the number of passengers on buses so they can social distance. Pre-COVID, a 40-foot, 39-seat bus was considered crowded when 53 passengers boarded. Poftak and Pollack are trying to develop a new definition of crowded, and they mentioned 20 passengers as a possibility.

The Chicago Transit Authority adopted a 15-passenger limit on 40-foot buses (22 on a 60-foot articulated bus), and gave drivers the authority to enforce it by allowing them to operate as drop-off only if the bus exceeded its capacity.

Poftak said the MBTA is unlikely to take a similar approach. He said the T is looking at different passenger levels to see how many buses the T would need to run to allow social distancing on board.

“It’s helping to inform our thinking,” he said. “I don’t think we’re headed in the direction of a hard cap. Driving a bus is tough work. The notion that [drivers] would also be enforcing these things I don’t think is a realistic expectation.”

Poftak said he preferred more passive approaches to keeping passenger levels down. Among those being explored: Adding more buses to high-demand routes, providing real-time information to passengers telling them when an approaching bus is crowded, using fare incentives to shift passengers to other, less-crowded modes of travel, and expanding capacity by adopting bus-only travel lanes and other measures to allow buses to operate more frequently.

Poftak was also cautious about taking a stance on MBTA oversight. The agency’s Fiscal and Management Control Board is due to sunset at the end of June. If no new board is authorized by the Legislature, oversight of the T will shift to the board of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Poftak, who previously served on the control board and the MassDOT board, said he thinks there is general consensus the T needs its own oversight board. “Dealing with MBTA issues in the context of everything else MassDOT has to do, you just can’t give it the amount of time it needs,” he said.

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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.

The general manager declines to weigh in on whether it would make sense to extend the term of the existing board instead of bringing in a new group in the midst of the current budgetary and operational struggles.

Poftak said the agency is prepared to bring up to speed whatever board is chosen to oversee the T. “This one is a complicated one,” he said. “There are many stakeholders here. We will let the process unfold.”