Pollack floats idea of slowing commuter rail makeover

Notes ridership has evaporated and may be slow to rebound

TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY STEPHANIE POLLACK on Monday floated the idea of slowing down the planned upgrade of the state’s commuter rail system, given the steep downturn in ridership and the prospect it could go on for a long time to come.

Commuter rail was one of the bright spots of the state transit system before the outbreak of COVID-19, with ridership and fare revenue both increasing. The T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board voted in November to begin proceeding with an overhaul of the commuter rail system to provide more frequent subway-like service using trains running on electricity.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the once-crowded commuter rail trains turned into ghost trains. On March 4, for example, the T sold $331,341 worth of commuter rail tickets using the mTicket app. On April 15, mTicket sales fell to just $1,992.

“Commuter rail ridership has literally evaporated,” Pollack said.

Pollack said it’s unclear how soon ridership will rebound even if the economy reopens. Most commuter rail riders are white collar workers who now know they can work from home. They also tend to be wealthier and may, given the low price of gas, decide to just drive into Boston when they need to go there.

The MBTA is facing a series of major decisions with commuter rail. The current operator of the system is Keolis Commuter Services, whose eight-year, $2.6 billion contract expires in June 2022. There is little chance the T can go through the process of hiring a new operator/partner for the transformation of the commuter rail system by then, so it’s likely the T will have to sign some sort of extension with Keolis while it solicits bids for its system of the future.

“This is not going to be a quick process. It’s billions of dollars of investment,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair of the control board.

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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.

Pollack floated the idea that it may make sense to push the expensive commuter rail overhaul further into the future, giving ridership a chance to slowly rebound and creating a dynamic that would give rail operators a greater incentive to bid on the project.

Of course, no one really knows what will happen in transportation post-COVID, and the idea of pushing investments into the future could apply to just about any project on the T’s drawing boards. Indeed, the debate over commuter rail’s somewhat shaky future came on a day when T officials in charge of extending commuter rail service to New Bedford and Fall River sought and won approval for a $159 million contract to build part of the $1.1 billion project. The South Coast Rail project is a political priority of Gov. Charlie Baker and the South Coast region.