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MBTA is changing its forecast and expects fewer riders next year

The MBTA will finalize plans for service cuts, totaling up to $150 million before the end of the year, and they would take effect in the spring and summer.
The MBTA will finalize plans for service cuts, totaling up to $150 million before the end of the year, and they would take effect in the spring and summer.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In a stark sign of the pandemic’s extended economic impact, the MBTA is adjusting its fare revenue forecast for the next year in the face of new projections that show riders returning more slowly than expected.

Officials at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority are planning for fare revenue to reach no more than 38 percent of pre-pandemic levels by June, after previously pegging that number at 60 percent. Depending on the virus’s impact on travel patterns and work-from-home policies, the figure could be as low as 24 percent, according to a new model used by the state.

The prediction may come as a surprise after fare collections in recent months surpassed the MBTA’s projections, which were conservative. But the forecast for 2021 was rosier, with projections that ridership would begin returning to something closer to normal.

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Officials now say that’s unlikely, a finding that could deepen a financial deficit looming next summer that has already prompted the MBTA to consider a hefty package of service cuts that would affect every mode of transportation.

Those cuts were the subject of several public comments, including from politicians in Greater Boston, at a meeting Monday of the MBTA’s oversight board.

“I struggle to understand how an equitable and just economic recovery can proceed with mass transit on the sidelines," said Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone.

The MBTA will finalize plans for the service cuts, totaling up to $150 million, before the end of the year, and they would take effect in the spring and summer. The idea is to limit reductions on routes that have been deemed essential — a category that includes all four subway lines and about two-thirds of bus service — and emphasize service for riders who rely the most on public transit. While even essential services could face significant reductions, other parts of the system that have seen riders return more slowly, such as much of the commuter rail, would face more severe cuts.

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The challenges to this approach were also on display at Monday’s meeting: Several riders on the Hull and Hingham ferries, which officials have indicated may be eliminated altogether, urged the MBTA to keep the service running.

“I’ve been hearing from so many people who really find the ferry service [to be] not just something they like to use and part of why they moved to the South Shore, but really an essential service for their everyday lives,” said Jason McCann, a Hull resident who has launched a campaign to protect the ferry service.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh asked the MBTA’s board to join other transit agencies in lobbying for more federal money. The T has already done so, calling on Congress to approve a $32 billion transit fund in a coronavirus rescue bill. Transit leaders across the country say the legislation would stave off severe cuts, but it has been tied up in negotiations between House Democrats and the Trump administration.

Others are pressing for a more local solution to the problem. In a letter to the MBTA’s board, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council said agency officials “must call on the Legislature for more revenue to avoid service cuts.” And 30 transportation, environmental, labor, business, and other interest groups signed another letter, one saying that the MBTA should not finalize service cuts until the current legislative session has ended.

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State lawmakers once seemed likely to raise new transportation revenue, in part by increasing the gasoline tax, but the Senate backed off of those plans as the economy was hindered by the virus. Governor Charlie Baker last week revisited the idea of increasing fees on Uber and Lyft to raise additional money for the MBTA, although that may yield limited short-term returns with ride-hail trips down considerably during the pandemic.

Ridership at the MBTA rebounded better than expected this summer, as it exceeded previous fare projections in July and August. Those findings encouraged the MBTA to boost the projections for the rest of 2020, with expectations that the T would collect more than 20 percent of pre-pandemic fare revenue each month this fall, compared to earlier forecasts of 10 percent.

But with many white-collar workers now expected to work at home into spring or summer, officials are preparing for a far slower recovery than they had projected for the first half of 2021.

Service cuts are only one way the MBTA plans to address its budget deficit. It’s also relying on measures that would allow it to shift as much as $500 million meant for long-term projects to daily operations. The T has also identified up to $75 million in savings aside from service cuts that could help solve the issue, ranging from larger-scale moves such as refinancing debt to smaller initiatives like ordering fewer plastic CharlieCards to better match ridership.

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