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MBTA expects low ridership for months but will nevertheless resume full service

That will facilitate social distancing, officials say

A main goal of resuming normal service on the T is to make social distancing practical.
A main goal of resuming normal service on the T is to make social distancing practical.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority expects ridership to remain low for much of the next 12 months amid the pandemic, but it will rely on federal assistance to return to normal service in the coming weeks.

MBTA officials are considering several budgeting scenarios for the next fiscal year, which begins in July. Each is based on the expectation that ridership will lag well behind pre-virus forecasts for months, if not years. They’re basing the budget on a conservative outlook that expects fare revenue to stay at about 10 percent of those earlier projections through 2020, and slowly rise to about 60 percent by mid-2021.

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The transit system has been running mostly weekend schedules since mid-March. But with large crowds now a major health threat as the virus circulates, officials said they plan to return to full service and create more space for riders.

“You kind of have to simultaneously budget for full service and reduced fare [revenue]," Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said Monday at a teleconference meeting of the agency’s board. "And that’s really what social distancing means for the MBTA. We need as much service as we can provide, given the staff and vehicle fleets we have, because we’re going to carry fewer people so we can keep them spread out in our buses and in our vehicles . . . that is really the great budget challenge.”

The T has not said when it will boost service levels. Pollack serves on a panel focused on reopening the Massachusetts economy, with a report due May 18, and MBTA officials on Monday said the “objective” of the budget is to run full service.

The budget will need several approvals over the next month before it is final.

Just before the virus emerged in Massachusetts, the MBTA was planning a budget that would have topped $2.3 billion and included $712 million from fares. Now, it is projecting just $188 million in fares, along with declining income from advertising, parking, and a revenue source tied to the state sales tax. Overall, the projected budget gap is more than $700 million.

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The MBTA does have access to one major reserve of funds: more than $820 million from the federal government under the CARES Act that is meant to help transit agencies cover their losses from the pandemic. More than $210 million will cover this year’s shortfall, but the rest can be put toward next year’s expenses.

The federal funding should avert fare hikes or layoffs. But covering the rest of the gap will require other compromises. For example, the MBTA is also likely to steer money from the Legislature that it normally diverts into a separate, long-term capital fund into the budget for daily operations. That won’t affect capital spending next year, but it may further down the line.

The MBTA may also need to slow the pace of hiring for new programs, including a high-profile initiative to improve safety. Those programs could be revisited and bolstered as revenue rebounds, said David Panagore, the T’s budget chief. He stressed that the budget discussed Mnday is meant as a blueprint to guide planning and decision-making and will probably need to be revisited often, given the uncertain future of the virus and its effects.

Panagore said riders may be slow to return for several reasons: the possibility that public health officials will impose restrictions, widespread reluctance to brave the close quarters of public transit, a large portion of the workforce continuing to work from home, and low gas prices and diminished traffic volume making it easier for people to drive.

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While the federal funds will help for now, future years may be more difficult, cautioned Brian Shortsleeve, a former MBTA general manager who now sits on its governing board. Shortsleeve recommended that the T begin girding for the possibility of a “gigantic hole" in the budget and a much lower revenue base.

“How much MBTA can we buy with that amount?” he asked.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.