Reopening the economy poses a ‘Goldilocks challenge’ for the MBTA. What does that mean?

State officials are analyzing how the daily commute will be impacted by a return to work during the coronavirus pandemic.

Very light evening rush hour traffic crosses the Zakim Bridge as it passes the Boston Garden on March 17.
Very light evening rush hour traffic crosses the Zakim Bridge on March 17. –Charles Krupa / AP

As state officials ponder the reopening of the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, some pouring over the details of what the commute back to work will look like are taking a page from Goldilocks: trying to find a transit balance that is, as she would say, “just right.”

“The Goldilocks challenge” is how state Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack described the task before her and her colleagues during a virtual panel discussion Thursday afternoon.

Boston already suffered notorious rush hour traffic congestion before the dawn of the ongoing health crisis. And in the age of social distancing, how many commuters will go for a ride on a packed MBTA car?

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“‘The Goldilocks challenge’ is how do we get it just right?” Pollack said during the discussion, focused on the future of commuting and held by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “How do we make sure there’s enough transit so that we’re addressing traffic congestion [and] greenhouse gases and equity issues, but we also make sure that that transit isn’t crowded?”

Public transit ridership has dropped significantly, or 70 to 80 percent, since the full weight of COVID-19 reached New England. The MBTA is currently operating at a reduced service level.

Traffic has also drastically fallen. With Gov. Charlie Baker’s stay-at-home advisory and an order closing all nonessential businesses both in effect through May 18, roadways across the commonwealth have been staggeringly empty, so much so that highway officials are actively urging remaining motorists not to speed to their destinations after the rate of fatal crashes doubled last month.

Baker has said that as long as coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and other metrics decline as needed, his administration is considering a phased reopening of the economy later this month.

On Thursday, Pollack, stressing that how exactly the state’s workforce would opt to commute at that point remains uncertain, said polling data shows some commuters would be uncomfortable at the prospect of riding the T.

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She pointed to the results of a Suffolk University, WGBH News, and Boston Globe survey released this week showing 79.2 percent of the 500 respondents indicated they would not be comfortable riding public transit when those regulations are lifted. Additionally, an IBM Institute for Business Value poll of 25,000 consumers across the country last month found that “more than 20 percent of respondents who regularly used public transit said they no longer would, with a further 28 percent saying they would use public transportation less often.”

With ridership expected to be far lower than before for the time being, the MBTA is working to eventually offer its full scheduled service, according to General Manager Steve Poftak, who said the agency has put aside the cash to do so in its fiscal year 2021 budget.

Riders, however, should not expect a sweeping plan detailing specifics of how service on each branch of the system will change or rebound, said Pollack, who also serves on the state’s Recovery Advisory Board. Rather, a return to full service is expected to be gradual on an as-needed basis in conjunction with rising ridership, she said.

“I would hazard to guess that the T would need to be back in its full schedule by the time schools open back up again in the fall,” Pollack said. “But as I said, we have the financial wherewithal to do that sooner if the ridership justifies it.

“That’s kind of how we’re approaching it,” she added. “There’s not going to be a giant plan that the T is going to release that’s going to tell you exactly how much service they’re going to have on every service, every month for the next 12 months, because that’s not how it’s going to come back.”

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But too little ridership would be a problem, according to Pollack.

Lack of MBTA commuters could indicate that riders do not feel safe on the T, and traffic congestion “could return with a vengeance” as one slide shown during her presentation read.

More cars on the road also means greenhouse gas emissions are less likely to decline, impacting the state’s goal for “net zero” emissions by 2050, Pollack said.

“I would argue that it’s bad for equity. Certainly it could be a sign that our riders don’t feel we’re doing our job on safety, and riders produce fares and fares are an important part of the financial support network for the T,” she said. “So, sort of like the Goldilocks story, if it’s too little or too cool, transit isn’t good.”

Still, a swing in the other direction comes with problems of its own.

“Unfortunately too much transit (ridership), particularly transit that is crowded, may prove to be a problem for commuters,” Pollack said. “It could present safety issues for MBTA employees and to our riders, and it could actually send a signal to riders that are already anxious about getting on the T that they want to get off it because they are going back to the crowded commutes that maybe they’d forgotten about but will quickly remember.”

A key aspect of attracting riders back to the MBTA is building confidence in the safety of the system, Pollack said.

To that end, the agency has maintained a “very extensive” daily cleaning and decontamination program, which includes wiping down “major touch points” in core stations every four hours, Poftak said.

The MBTA has hired outside contractors to carry out much of that work and has spent over $30 million since March in cleaning and personal protective equipment, or PPE, related expenses, he said. The authority even bought hand sanitizer in bulk and had its mechanics bottle it for frontline employees.

Officials have set aside $1 million a week in the upcoming budget to keep those measures going, Poftak said.

As of Thursday, almost 900 employees — who are regularly administered temperature checks — had been tested for coronavirus, with over 140 employees having contracted the virus at some point, according to Poftak.

“In my estimation, we are doing as much as any transit agency in the country is in this regard,” he said.

With uncertain conditions ahead, Pollack said the transportation industry must work with business leaders to help orchestrate a safe transition back to the daily commute.

That could also mean changing the workweek itself, if not just the workday.

Offering a few ideas to keep transportation demands at bay, Pollack said employers could stagger workday start and end times for employees, or even alternate workweek schedules to limit the number of commuters during traditional peak hours, among other options.

Telecommuting or work-from-home practices could continue in industries and occupations where it’s feasible, she said.

“What we do know is there’s a lot of ways to change the way we work and the way we commute if we can work together,” Pollack said.


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