Transportation officials struggle with the downturn

Ridership way off at the T; toll revenues could fall $38m

STATE TRANSPORTATION OFFICIALS are starting to do financial and workforce contingency planning in case the drastic falloff in MBTA ridership and toll revenue in response to the coronavirus outbreak continues for an extended period of time.

The numbers are way down and most transportation officials expect them to dip even more with Monday’s order by the governor that all non-essential businesses be shut down.

Trips that trigger a toll on the Massachusetts Turnpike, the tunnels, and the Tobin Bridge have fallen roughly by a third, dropping from 1.5 million a day to less than 1 million.

At a virtual meeting of the boards overseeing the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said her staff estimated the downturn in traffic could cost the state $38 million in toll revenue if existing patterns continue through the end of June.

Pollack said the state can cover any shortfall with reserves, but added that a number of existing construction projects are being reviewed for coronavirus safety and new ones will be evaluated to determine whether they should be delayed for safety or financial reasons.

“We will be evaluating each project on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

The MBTA is grappling with far more serious challenges. Subway ridership is down to an estimated 85,000 passengers a day from a baseline level of 482,000. Bus ridership is off 70 to 75 percent from baseline levels. Commuter rail traffic, based on app purchases, is down to 3 percent of normal levels. Parking at T garages and lots is about 7 percent of normal levels.

According to earlier projections, the MBTA is counting on $697 million in fare revenue this fiscal year, but it appears that number may be off if the downturn in ridership continues or worsens.

Steve Poftak, the T’s general manager, made no revenue forecasts at Monday’s meeting, but sources say behind the scenes a lot of contingency planning is going on to assess whether the transit agency has hit bottom or not and how long these low numbers will continue.

“The drop in ridership comes with significant budgetary impacts, both on the operating and capital side, and that’s something that we’ll be exploring more deeply in the coming weeks,” he said. “I think it would be appropriate for us to come back at the next meeting and begin talking about that. There’s a lot of variables here, many of which we do not control, so there’s going to be a lot of uncertainty in that conversation.”

Joe Sullivan was one of the few MassDOT board members to attend the meeting in person. Clorox wipes were at the ready. (Photo from live stream.)

Poftak noted that the T is continually adjusting its service levels because not only are fewer riders riding but some lines have been affected more severely than others. Blue Line ridership, for example, is down 69 percent, while Red Line ridership is down 84 percent. Pollack speculated that people who normally commute to work by car may now be driving to Wonderland and taking the Blue Line into town from there.

Despite the huge falloff in commuter rail ridership, the T on Wednesday is adding four early morning trains on the Haverhill, Fitchburg, Lowell, and Needham lines to get medical workers into Boston for early morning shift changes. The timing of an existing train on the Newburyport/Rockport line is being moved up as well.

Poftak indicated one challenge for him is to safeguard his workforce and preserve it in case the COVID-19 outbreak worsens. He previously moved to lower Saturday levels of service and is now shutting down some planned upgrades on the Red Line and Green Line (D branch) so operations employees are not pulled in different directions. He is also allowing passengers to board buses through the rear door to lessen the proximity of passengers to the driver. (The move will also have the impact of reducing bus fare collection.)

Joe Aiello, the chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, indicated the panel has a lot of work to do to balance the current fiscal year’s budget and devise a plan for fiscal 2021, which begins July 1.

“To state the obvious, the direction that we’re going to be taking with respect to the FY21 budget is not clear at this point,” Aiello said. “We have a bit of a journey ahead of us to determine what the right approach to develop an operating budget will be.”

Sources say officials are looking into whether the T will need more money from the Legislature and whether the federal government may provide some funding.

In the meantime, the two transportation boards voted to grant authority to the T to borrow up to $200 million on a short-term basis to provide liquidity. T officials said the authorization was not unusual and is not needed for any specific project.

The two boards took action on a number of other matters Monday. Here are some of the highlights:

— The Fiscal and Management Control Board approved a $17.8 million contract to consolidate four closely spaced station stops along the Green Line’s B branch into two. The consolidation of the Boston University West and St. Paul stops and the merging of the Pleasant and Babcock Street stops should speed up travel and provide riders with stations better protected from the traffic along Commonwealth Avenue.

— To help maintain social distancing at its branches, the Registry of Motor Vehicles said it began testing on Monday a system that would allow customers to make reservations for appointments in 50-minute increments. Officials said they hope to roll out the system this week.

— The MassDOT board gave the greenlight for a two-building project over the Massachusetts Turnpike just east of Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. The 99-year lease with the developer, Samuels and Associates, calls for annual payments to MassDOT of $13.5 million, up from the original offer of $4.7 million. The deal also provides $5.4 million in linkage payments to the city of Boston, $30 million in annual gross state tax revenues, and a 1 percent payout to the state of the estimated $700 million construction cost after 15 years or if the project is refinanced or sold, whichever comes first.

— The MassDOT board also approved a nearly $26 million project to redesign and rebuild nearly a mile of Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston. The redesign will add pedestrian and bike lanes on both sides of the road and reduce speeds to 25 miles per hour by elevating intersections. The project is currently slated to begin this summer.