As part of A Better City’s Boston Forward Together initiative, A Better City welcomed MBTA General Manager, Steve Poftak, on March 8th to speak with members about the T’s service efforts to maintain service throughout the pandemic and to prepare for a return to the anticipated return of commuters this fall.
General Manager Poftak walked A Better City members through the actions taken by the MTBA over the course of the pandemic to keep riders and the workforce safe and to prioritize service for essential workers. He spoke about the Forging Ahead initiative, which has resulted in reductions and cuts across the system, some implemented in January and others going into effect in March and April. Overall, the MBTA is reducing service hours by approximately 15%-20% of pre-pandemic service.
The General Manager explained ridership patterns, noting a precipitous drop in February 2020, steady ridership on essential routes, and incremental increases that correspond with different phases of the region’s reopening process. He mentioned a high load of COVID-19 cases among MBTA workers that led to additional service reduction.
Looking to the future, the General Manager presented the T’s stated goals for restoring transit service: (1) continue to serve and prioritize our existing essential riders with frequent and reliable transit; and (2) make riding transit a good experience for those starting to travel again (consistent with public health guidelines). With advances in vaccine distribution and plans to reopen the Commonwealth’s economy in mid-March, the General Manager acknowledged the MBTA’s need to be ready for the return to the workplace in order to support a strong recovery.
The General Manger also noted that the situation is evolving rapidly and that is there is a great deal of uncertainty around rate and frequency of rider return. Within this context, the General Manager said that the T seeks to “build back better” to provide service that meets new commuting trends and supports transformational initiatives like Regional Rail and Bus Resign Network, which will modernize and improve the way the MBTA delivers service.
He also acknowledged that because of the Forging Ahead service reductions and cuts it will not be possible to restore full service immediately noting that the T would use gap filling solutions to bridge service gaps where possible He also said the Authority would be responding to new conditions, including the impact of teleworking and how that defines commuting in the “new normal.”
The T will continue efforts to survey commuters and employers to gauge future trends in commuting and welcomed input from other entities, including A Better City members, to better understand and collect data on reopening plans, work schedules (time of day, teleworking), and fare product preferences.
The FY22 budget and five-year pro forma process are a critical component of when and how much service the MBTA will provide post-pandemic. The General Manager spoke about the MBTA’s long-term structural deficit and implications for building back service and pursuing unfunded capital investment projects. Given the uncertainty around ridership return, the T has developed three predictive scenarios on fare revenue collection that will inform budget discussions for FY22 and beyond. All scenarios show a decrease in fare revenue collection through FY26, which the General Manager said was a leading factor in stretching out federal dollars. To date, the MBTA has received over $1 billion in federal relief aid, and they are expecting an additional amount (potentially as much as $850 million) from the American Recovery Plan. The T’s preference is to use all the federal funding in the operating budget to safeguard the long-term fiscal sustainability of the Authority.
During the Question & Answer portion of the event, participants raised questions about the following topics:
The T’ capacity, once the final Forging Ahead service reductions and cuts are in place, to quickly restore service to meet incremental demand
The General Manager noted that the T is currently running 86% of pre-COVID-19 service hours and hopes to be as nimble as possible going forward to bring back service. Restoration timetables depend on mode. For the less elastic modes, the T has gap filling solutions such as “run-as-directed” strategies to deploy additional rapid transit and bus vehicles to alleviate acute or spot crowding (e.g. evening or weekend events). Additionally, the T will be able to easily “add” more trains on the Commuter Rail as a result of the new Regional Rail schedule going into effect on April 5, 2021. He also noted that the T is recruiting bus drivers but with current physical distancing protocols the process is takes more time.
Available studies and evidence to show the relative safety of public transit during and post-pandemic
The General Manager noted that there is no evidence to suggest that public transit is a super-spreader, when vehicles are properly ventilated and when physical distancing, PPE, and hygiene protocols are respected. The MBTA has aggressive cleaning and disinfecting protocols in place and is waiting for new guidance before easing back on surface cleaning.
Role of the business community in bringing people back to the system
The General Manager commented that there is an ongoing internal dialogue on fare products and how to best meet the needs of riders and employer’s post-pandemic. At present, the MBTA has a flex-pass, but it is interested in hearing from employers/employees on their return to the workplace plans and schedules as well as what products make sense and create incentive to get back on public transit.
Identification of alternative sources of funding—not just emergency relief funds—to address the MBTA’s structural deficit
The General Manager acknowledged the T’s structural deficit problem, which pre-dates COVID-19. He noted that the T is working with the Fiscal Control and Management Board on how and when to spend the stimulus money, which he shared was meant to cover near-term operating expenses, to bridge the Authority while they understand future ridership and service levels.
Shift from “Ride Safer” to “Welcome Back” rider campaign
The General Manger said that when the moment is right—underscoring that it was not currently the right moment—and public health guidance changes for public transit, the MTBA will initiate an aggressive campaign to bring riders back to the system, in particular the Commuter Rail and Ferry, where the system has seen significant attrition.
The future of the commuter rail
The General Manager informed members that the Commuter Rail would be moving toward a “regional rail” schedule in April, adopting a “clock-face schedule” to run trains at consistent intervals throughout the day. This will smooth out service during the day and allow flexibility to run longer trains. He also stated that the T is testing fare products on certain lines to learn more about how the cost structure impacts use.
The role of public transit to meet the Commonwealth’s climate and resiliency goals
The General Manager acknowledged that the Governor’s recent climate mitigation plan did not lean in heavily on the MBTA, but the T is looking at how public transit can help achieve climate and resiliency goals. He noted that the T purchases renewable energy/energy offsets, is building a seawall in Charlestown, and testing out battery-electric technology for bus fleet.