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Quick ridership gains, or a long-term lag? MBTA aims to position itself to react as pandemic eases

Though public transit ridership is down sharply overall, the MBTA is adding service on some bus routes.
Though public transit ridership is down sharply overall, the MBTA is adding service on some bus routes.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File

Tens of thousands of COVID-19 vaccinations are being administered each day. The Red Sox will welcome fans to opening day in a few weeks. And the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is slated to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in a third installment of federal aid that is expected to receive final approval in Congress this week.

Despite the hopeful signs, the MBTA projects that ridership, decimated by the pandemic, will lag for years to come, a sustained downturn that could cause a long-term budget crunch. Yet even as the agency finalizes a slate of service cuts to take effect in the coming weeks, it’s developing plans to restore some service if ridership surges in tandem with vaccination rates.

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“Guidance is changing very quickly, and I think the reopening of the Commonwealth is changing much quicker than I think we had previously assumed,” Monica Tibbits-Nutt, vice chair of the MBTA’s oversight board, said at a Monday meeting at which members discussed both the possibility of short-term ridership gains and the prospect of long-term reductions.

Overall, MBTA service this spring will be at about 86 percent of pre-pandemic levels, with ridership at less than one-third. Reductions in subway and bus service take effect later this month, after cuts to the ferry system and weekend commuter rail service.

But some of the busier bus routes will run more service than before the pandemic. Officials also said they plan to restore some bus and subway trips this summer and fall, and may restore more service, including weekend trips that were removed from several commuter rail lines this winter.

Board members said they were worried the MBTA might not have enough time to restore service if ridership suddenly spikes, because of the long planning and scheduling process the agency uses. MBTA officials said they would try to quickly add buses and trains to address crowding as needed, but acknowledged they may have to restore service in anticipation of riders returning rather than in response.

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“This is not purely science. There is art here. And I think we all acknowledge, here at the T, we’re going to have to make some assumptions,” MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said. “We’re going to have to decide that we think ridership is coming back across certain transportation nodes . . . and that we will add service back preemptively.”

The cuts are expected to save the MBTA about $21 million by the end of June, a figure the agency had declined to disclose until now. Some of the savings will come from a reworked commuter rail schedule that will offer more regular service throughout the day but fewer trips overall. About 40 conductors will lose their jobs, Keolis Commuter Services, the private company that operates the commuter rail for the T, said Monday.

Transit advocates have pressured the MBTA to use more of the federal money it has received to prevent these cuts. The call resurfaced on Monday, two days after the Senate passed its version of President Biden’s COVID relief legislation, the American Rescue Plan Act.

“We call on the MBTA to use this new infusion of aid to build back service as quickly as possible and ensure affordable and equitable service for the region,” Michael Vartabedian, a transit labor leader, said in a statement issued by Public Transit Public Good, a coalition of MBTA worker groups.

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It is unclear exactly how much the MBTA will receive from the latest package, but it will be hundreds of millions of dollars, adding to the more than $1.1 billion in relief funds the agency has already received. Poftak said he assumes this will be the final allotment from Congress.

The MBTA chose to allocate the last batch of federal funding, approved in December, primarily for future needs. On Monday, officials said the federal funding already received will help cover any fare-revenue shortfalls until summer 2022. But beyond that, officials expect to face significant budgetary shortfalls because of growing costs and projections that ridership may take years to fully return.

The MBTA is projecting fare revenue will reach no more than 89 percent of its previous rate by 2026. A more pessimistic forecast could put fares at only 66 percent of the old levels by then. Either forecast would result in shortfalls of hundreds of millions of dollars, in part because the MBTA will assume new costs on projects like the Green Line extension and the opening of commuter rail to New Bedford.

Advocates said these deficit figures are misleading, because they do not include the upcoming round of federal stimulus funds.

The Baker administration has indicated that it expects remote work, which has flourished during the pandemic, will continue at some level, possibly having a major impact on commuting habits.

Monday’s fare-revenue forecasts came during a burgeoning debate over whether the MBTA should rely so heavily on fares, which typically make up about one-third of its $2 billion-plus operating budget. Some Boston city councilors have called for the MBTA to move toward a fare-free system. And Joseph Boncore, the state Senate’s transportation policy chief, has begun to push for the elimination of fares on the bus system, which is more heavily used by low-income riders than subways and commuter trains.

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MBTA leaders, however, do not seem interested in eliminating fares as a key source of funding.

“It is an integral part of our revenue stream, and I would be very cautious about any discussion that would jeopardize that,” Poftak said.


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