MBTA Juggles Falling Demand, Role In Moving Essential Workers

BOSTON (State House News Service) — The MBTA has cut back on service due to dramatically shrinking ridership, but agency officials hope to maintain current levels as long as possible as an option for workers who are crucial to fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak hinted Monday that "there may be a situation in the future" where the T further scales back the frequency of trains and buses beyond a new schedule launched last week, particularly if staffing becomes a challenge.

However, he stressed that any additional reduction "is not immediate" and that public transit will continue to run even once the newest Baker administration order for non-essential businesses to close and advisory for residents to remain home whenever possible take effect Tuesday.

"We would really like to sustain the current level of service as long as possible because we have an important function to play in terms of getting people to essential services," Poftak said on a video call at Monday's Fiscal and Management Control Board meeting.

Most MBTA service is running on Saturday schedules every day of the week during the state of emergency, an effort to balance dramatically lower ridership, maintaining some options for workers, and the need to ensure riders are not too close together on board trains and buses.

Officials have changed the schedule several times since unveiling it last week, however, to add back service they deem necessary.

That will happen again on Wednesday, when the T will add four commuter rail trains to service and adjust the schedule for a fifth. All five, which represent the Haverhill, Fitchburg, Lowell, Needham and Newburyport/Rockport Lines, are inbound trains to Boston departing between 4:50 a.m. and 5:50 a.m.

"The intent is to provide service into Boston on the commuter rail that allows health care employees to get into the city in time for a 7 a.m. shift change," Poftak said. "Given that we may be running in this mode for a significant period of time, we thought it was important to adjust the schedule so we can actually serve these important customers who are providing an essential service to our communities."

MBTA ridership has bottomed out since the coronavirus crisis began—and particularly since Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency on March 10—with many businesses closing or shifting to remote work and virtually all K-12 schools, colleges and universities in the region shuttered.

During the week of Feb. 24, when there was just a single confirmed case of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, there were an average of 482,000 daily ticket validations at gated T stations on the four subway lines and the Silver Line, according to figures presented Monday. On Friday, there were just 85,000 rides on the same five lines, roughly 18 percent of the late February figures.

Changes in bus ridership vary based on line, but system-wide trends were about 70 percent lower late last week compared to the final week of February. Commuter rail ridership is about 15 percent of its usual peak, Poftak said, and MBTA parking lots on Thursday were about 7 percent as full as a typical weekday.

Officials have not made clear what the financial implications will be from such lower ridership. The MBTA's fiscal 2020 budget anticipated about $694 million in fare revenue, about a third of all revenue it expected.

Poftak said T leadership is aware of the challenge and would likely work through plans in the next few weeks.

"The drop in ridership comes with significant budgetary impacts, both on the operating and capital sides, and that's something that we'll be exploring more deeply in the coming weeks," he said at Monday's meeting. "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."

by Chris Lisinski, State House News Service

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