The MBTA said Tuesday that it will begin ratcheting up service levels on buses and subways to accommodate the growing number of people starting to travel after the coronavirus shutdown, but it will take nearly two more weeks to implement.
With retail stores, restaurants, and other parts of the economy now reopening, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said it will begin to increase service from the less-frequent Saturday schedule it has been running for most routes, starting June 21. It will also wait until that week to restore ferries, which have been shut down completely since shortly after a state of emergency was declared in mid-March.
A return to full weekday service is expected to resume in Phase 3 of Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan, which could start at the end of June if the pandemic continues to ease in Massachusetts. Baker’s plan had called for more service during Phase 2, and some advocates had expected those increases when that phase began on Monday — not 13 days later.
“A better thing would have been to at least increase bus service before the 21st of June,” said Mela Miles of the T Riders Union, an advocacy program developed by the Roxbury nonprofit Alternatives for Community and Environment. “That’s a little late. . . . They’ve had months to think this through.”
The MBTA did not say why it is waiting so long to add service, except to note that ridership is still extremely low compared to prior to the virus, justifying a couple more weeks of weekend service.
“The MBTA continues to closely monitor daily ridership, and while there has been some incremental increases, the demand for service is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels,” spokesman Joe Pesaturo said. “The MBTA will increase service, across all modes, later this month as Phase 2 of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan continues."
MBTA general manager Steve Poftak previously said the T couldn’t quickly return to full service levels because of a high number of drivers who had contracted COVID-19 or were missing work because of some virus-related issue, such as self-quarantine.
The MBTA has said its goal is to run enough service to allow riders to keep at least 3 feet of distance between one another, but will not impose strict caps on each vehicle. Instead, officials hope enough riders stay away, work from home, or shift their travel times so that buses and trains will be less than half-full compared to the agency’s prior crowding standards. For example, buses would stay under 20 riders, and Red Line cars would keep under 66 passengers.
Ridership has plummeted throughout the spring, with buses at one point registering about 20 percent of normal loads. However, that varied widely from route to route, with smaller declines on several lines serving lower-income and minority riders, many of whom were essential workers, while routes through higher-income neighborhoods saw larger ridership drops.
In communities such as Chelsea, which was hit especially hard by the virus, the MBTA should increase bus service faster, said María Belén Power, associate executive director of GreenRoots, a nonprofit based in the city.
“The bus lines have been crowded, for sure,” she said. “People who need the T the most, who rely on it the most, are still riding in conditions that are not safe with the guidelines. There needs to be added service immediately and there’s no need to wait. Maybe there are buses you don’t need to do it to right away, but there are some buses where we need it ASAP.”
Meanwhile, subway ridership dropped more than 90 percent during the pandemic. There are signs, however, that ridership is starting to creep back. Passenger counts on Monday were about 20 percent higher than the week earlier, and 51 percent higher than on the first Monday of May, according to T data.
The Blue Line, in particular, is back to about 24 percent of its pre-virus ridership. That subway line, which has retained the highest portion of passengers throughout the crisis, will be the first to return to normal service levels when the T boosts frequencies on June 21, with trains arriving every five to nine minutes.
The Red, Orange, and Green lines, as well as the Mattapan trolley, will run somewhere between Saturday and weekday service, meaning there will be trains every 4.5 to 12 minutes depending on the line, with longer waits on the separate Braintree and Ashmont branches of the Red Line.
The bus system will also see an increased level of service, but not a return to full weekday frequencies. Instead, the T says it will run a Saturday-like schedule that starts earlier in the day with more frequency on nearly 60 high-demand routes, including additional weekday service on popular lines like the 1, 28, 66, and 111 buses.
The T also said it will hold about 30 percent of its bus fleet on standby, ready to be deployed to routes that are seeing crowding.
Service will also be added to the commuter rail, to about 85 percent of normal weekday levels, later this month. The Fairmount Line, however, will not only return to full service but will also run extra trains as part of a one-year experiment approved by the T’s governing board before the pandemic. The ferry system, which has not run at all since March, will also begin taking riders again on June 22, running about 75 percent its normal service.
The T said riders will still be asked to board through back doors on buses and at above-ground stops on the Green Line and the Mattapan trolley line, at least during Phase 2 of the recovery. The measure is meant to keep riders and drivers separate to prevent the spread of the virus, and that effectively makes trips on those modes free since riders bypass the fare box at the front of vehicles.
Riders are expected to wear masks or face coverings onboard, though T officials have said that under an executive order from Baker they cannot force passengers to wear them due to health privacy issues.