Within a few months, the coronavirus has turned an “exciting” time for the MBTA into “a period of great, great uncertainty.” according to Steve Poftak, the agency’s general manager.
The pandemic has dealt the MBTA a major financial blow, due to plunging ridership and fare revenue. And when passengers do trickle back, officials will be faced with the additional challenge of providing enough service on the system’s trains and buses to ensure riders have enough room, due to physical distancing precautions.
In a podcast interview published Monday by CommonWealth Magazine, Poftak said the issue of crowding may require some creativity — particularly on buses, where ridership is expected to rebound quicker than other modes of transportation.
A number of transit agencies across the country — from Seattle and Portland to Chicago and Milwaukee — have set forth guidelines to limit the number of passengers on a single bus. For example, in Chicago, new emergency rules gave drivers the authority to run as “drop-off only” and bypass certain stops once their bus became “too crowded,” defined as 15 or more passengers on a standard 40-foot bus and 22 or more passengers on a 60-foot articulated bus.
However, Poftak doesn’t foresee the MBTA heading in that direction. While MBTA officials are “thinking about” what safe ridership levels would be amidst the pandemic, he pushed back on the notion of actively enforcing a specific number.
“I don’t think we’re headed in a direction where we’re going to have a hard cap,” Poftak said on the Codcast podcast. “Driving a bus is tough work. The notion that they would also be enforcing these types of things I don’t think is a realistic expectation.”
Still, he said the MBTA’s plans are “very much a work in progress,” as officials monitor how other transit agencies are responding to the pandemic. Poftak said the MBTA is currently modeling to identify where they might have crowding “issues,” as Massachusetts moves toward allowing more businesses and activities to resume next week. He specifically mentioned buses and the Blue Line, as opposed to the commuter rail, where ridership has dropped most precipitously.
As of last week, MBTA passengers are already required to wear face coverings under Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent emergency order.
But that alone won’t be enough, according to Poftak. He floated the idea of a system providing passengers “real-time information” on which routes are the most crowded and even “some type of fare incentive” to get them to use less-crowded alternatives.
“If we have supply in other in modes in places, can we be creative about moving people to other modes?” he said.
Poftak also suggested the pandemic was a potential opportunity to install more bus lanes in order to increase service and spread out riders, even without necessarily adding more physical buses.
“If one bus can do 10 runs instead of eight, that gives us additional capacity,” he said.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack also recently remarked that the MBTA faces something of a “Goldilocks challenge” when it comes to ridership in the near future. During a panel last Thursday, she said the agency has to encourage enough ridership to address traffic congestion, greenhouse gases, and equity issues — but not so much that it raises crowding concerns.
That dilemma also comes back to financially bite the MBTA.
“The most important thing and the most difficult thing,” Pollack said during a meeting last Monday, “is that you kinda have to simultaneously budget for full service and reduced fares. And that’s really what social distancing means for the MBTA.”
The agency received $830 million in federal funding from the CARES Act. But according to Poftak, that relief will only get the MBTA through the upcoming fiscal year. By July 2021, they project ridership will still only be at 60 percent of its pre-COVID-19 levels.
“That’s something we’re going to have to address,” Poftak said.