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As the virus surges, traffic and MBTA ridership are stalling again

After growing throughout the summer, traffic levels appear to have tapered off in Massachusetts.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Is Massachusetts slowing down again?

After travel in the state bottomed during the spring coronavirus lockdown, traffic and transit ridership slowly but steadily increased throughout the summer. People still moved a lot less than in 2019, but driving, subway ridership, and bus trips were all mostly on the upswing for several months.

But with the virus again on the march, travel seems to be dipping in response. MBTA subway ridership, which had been nearing 140,000 daily riders in October, is now closer to 120,000, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said at a recent public meeting. Bus ridership is similarly down, from nearly 180,000 daily trips to about 160,000. Auto vehicle counts have also tapered off since peaking around Labor Day, and even parts of the state that had previously seen a return to 2019 levels are back down again.


Pollack attributed the changes to the worsening state of the pandemic and public health directives.

“Given the surge, given the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and the governor and everyone else that people need to spend more time at home and not travel for Thanksgiving, we may well see a remaining fall and winter” with shrinking travel rates, she said. “From the perspective of the pandemic, that is a good thing.”

But it could exacerbate challenges at the MBTA. The agency beat its initial fare revenue projections in the first few months of the current fiscal year, but was under-budget for October by about $1.7 million, complicating a financial picture that has already led the agency to plan widespread service cuts for next year.

Critics have urged Pollack and the MBTA to hold back on those cuts, arguing that a vaccine could soon bring back riders to help solve the budget issues. Pollack, however, has argued that ridership may lag for months even if a vaccine halts the virus and the economy kicks back into gear, because more people will be working from home or holding virtual meetings and medical appointments.


Rounding out the board

Governor Charlie Baker filled out the MBTA’s oversight board on Monday, appointing Tim Sullivan to a vacant post on the five-member panel.

Sullivan, who works as a managing director at the global investment bank UBS, was cast in a press release as a budget-oriented official who will help the MBTA manage its perilous financial outlook. He’s replacing Brian Shortsleeve, a venture capitalist and former MBTA general manager, who left the board over the summer and also tended to focus on the T’s budget during board meetings.

Sullivan also formerly worked as the head of the state’s affordable housing agency, MassHousing, and joins the agency’s current director, Chrystal Kornegay, on the MBTA board.

Sullivan will face a major vote almost immediately: The board is scheduled to decide in December on the package of service cuts, which would close the ferry system, reduce train frequencies, end weekend commuter rail service, eliminate some bus routes, and end all service earlier each night. He seemed relieved by a plan to push this vote back a week, from Dec. 7 to Dec. 14.

“There’s no way I’m not going to ask for more time,” Sullivan said at his first board meeting Monday.

Despite the frequent churn of MBTA general managers in Baker’s first term, the board has been remarkably stable. Sullivan is just the eighth person to serve on the body since it was created by the Legislature in 2015 to provide emergency oversight to the troubled agency; one of the former members, Steve Poftak, has now been the T’s general manager for nearly two years. The board is scheduled to dissolve next summer.


As essential as a CharlieCard

MBTA Transit Police will now be distributing masks to T riders, the latest move in the agency’s initiative to ensure all passengers cover their faces.

The MBTA recently obtained 100,000 masks made and donated by New Balance. The T’s “transit ambassadors,” who provide customer assistance inside stations, are also handing out masks to riders that need them during select hours at busier stations, including Charles/MGH, Downtown Crossing, Forest Hills, Hynes Convention Center, Maverick, Orient Heights, Park Street, and Quincy Center.

While the vast majority of MBTA riders have worn masks since the spring, there are still plenty who go without, heightening concerns about riding buses or trains during the pandemic. The agency has required riders to wear them since May, but only recently said it would begin enforcing the rule.

Enforcement carries its own pitfalls, however: Transit Police recently reported the arrest of a rider who allegedly assaulted a driver after he was asked to wear a mask.