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MBTA driver shortage made worse by COVID surge

In this file photo, a bus pulled out of the garage at the MBTA maintenance facility in South Boston.Globe Staff

In early December, the MBTA announced it was reducing frequency on its bus routes to better match its diminished staffing levels and make the bus more reliable.

Then the Omicron COVID-19 variant came roaring into Massachusetts.

Amid record high cases in the state, more bus drivers are calling in sick, and on some recent days the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had to drop as many bus trips as it did before it made the schedule cuts — about one in 20 — leaving riders waiting longer in the cold.

“It’s at roughly the same level,” T General Manager Steve Poftak said Friday. Dropped trips “definitely went down when we made the service cuts, which was the intended effect. But it’s gone back up.”

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Transportation agencies across the country are juggling the shortage of healthy workers with trying to deliver reliable service to riders who depend on public transit. The challenge is made more acute for agencies, like the MBTA, that were already facing severe staffing shortages before the Omicron variant began to take hold in mid-December.

Citing COVID-19 absences, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City suspended service on three subway lines this week. Metro in Washington, D.C., will reduce weekday bus service to Saturday levels starting Monday.

Also on Monday, the MBTA will reduce commuter rail service on the Haverhill Line and on the Worcester Line for at least two weeks due to COVID-19 absences.

“The changes on commuter rail, we hope, is the extent of it,” said Poftak.

The MBTA is not the only transit agency in the state having to nix trips.

It was two days after Christmas when a Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority bus driver got the bad news in the midst of driving his route between Andover and Lawrence: He had tested positive for COVID-19.

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The driver ended the trip and headed back to the bus yard, where another driver working overtime picked up the next trip. He was one of seven drivers and one supervisor who were out because of COVID-19 infection last week, according to transit authority administrator Noah Berger.

On Tuesday, early-morning trips on two of the MVRTA’s buses were dropped, a log of dropped trips provided by Berger showed. The reason listed: “LACK OF MANPOWER.”

“Long term it’s going to be challenging,” said Berger. “People burn out, it’s asking a lot. Folks have really risen to the challenge.”

To help keep workers informed of their status, next week the MBTA plans to reopen a testing site at its maintenance facility in Everett that it shuttered in early December because of a lack of demand, said MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo. Testing is key to keeping drivers on the job, said Jim Evers, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589.

“We’re seeing a lot of our members saying, ‘I was exposed,’ and the clinics are saying they have to wait at least a week for a test. That’s no good,” he said. “Having this testing is ideal.”

People who drive around Boston appear to be staying off the roads during the surge, which also happens to have begun over the winter holiday season. According to a spokesperson for INRIX, a transportation data firm, weekday travel speeds in Suffolk County during the evening peak period of 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on highways and expressways were 16 percent faster from Dec. 19 to Jan. 5 compared to Dec. 1 to Dec. 18, indicating fewer cars on the road and less congestion. Average travel speeds went from 19.8 miles per hour during the first time period to 23.0 miles per hour since Dec. 19.

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Spokesperson for MassDOT Jacquelyn Goddard said the agency has “no widespread staff outages at this time.” Spokesperson for Massport Jennifer Mehigan said the agency has seen an uptick in employees out due to COVID-19, but does not expect an impact on its services.

Adding to the MBTA’s woes, on Thursday, Suffolk District Attorney Rachel Rollins announced a criminal investigation into a potential “lack of oversight or negligence” at the MBTA stemming from a late July 2021 Green Line crash that sent 27 people to the hospital and was followed by a series of other safety incidents.

Poftak said he could not comment on the investigation, except to say that the MBTA is cooperating with the DA’s office and that safety is the agency’s top priority. He said the safety culture has improved at the MBTA since he started in January 2019, citing an increase in the use of the agency’s internal hotline for reporting safety issues.

“I think that’s symbolic of commitment to safety here at the T,” he said. “Obviously, there are still issues, but I think we are actually proactive now in addressing safety issues.”

On Monday, Poftak spoke about the importance of safety to a new class of 27 bus driver recruits just starting their eight-week training journey to get behind the wheel. The MBTA hopes to fill another class, which can hold up to 60 drivers, later this month.

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“I do that to drive home . . . safety is the priority here at the organization,” he said. “It’s more important than service, it’s more important than productivity.”

Central to the Green Line crash in July is the MBTA’s delay in installing a train collision prevention system first recommended for the Green Line by the National Transportation Safety Board in 2009. The driver at the time of the crash, who has been charged with negligence and pleaded not guilty, was traveling above the speed limit and crashed into the train in front of him. Operators are supposed to maintain a 500-foot distance between each other while in motion on the Green Line, according to the court records obtained by the Globe.

The MBTA currently projects the anti-collision technology will be fully implemented on the Green Line by the end of 2024, 15 years after it was first recommended. Poftak said he is trying to speed up implementation and looking at potentially using new funds from the recently-passed federal infrastructure law.

“I’m hopeful in the next . . . week or so to be able to talk about, to identify funding for us to actually accelerate that project,” he said. “We’re still working on some of the details.”

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Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.