The MBTA Board of Directors on Thursday unanimously approved a revised bus map that would increase the scope and frequency of service around Boston, including 30 routes planned to have buses arrive at least every 15 minutes.
The board approved implementation of the plan starting in Fiscal Year 2023, which would kick off a series of changes to service implemented in stages, slated to end in 2028.
Board members also approved a new set of fare evasion regulations, which await approval by the secretary of state. Under the new regulations, a first offense will earn a formal written warning before a citation is issued. First, second, and third citations would be $50, and later citations would issue fines of $100. The T is not currently issuing any citations for evasion after changes to a state law starting in 2021.
The changes come amid an ongoing shortage of bus drivers, which has prompted repeated service cuts since December. MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said bus ridership is at about 75 percent of its pre-pandemic numbers.
“As you know, there’s a shortage of operators today,” said Doug Johnson, transportation planner for the MBTA. “And with this proposal, we will need to increase the operator headcount beyond the number that we had pre-pandemic.”
Johnson said the new route system will need an additional 440 riders to sustain its proposed 25 percent increase in service. He said the last figures he saw, about two weeks ago, showed a deficit of about 300 drivers, meaning the T will need to hire about 700 individuals over the next five years.
Johnson said initial changes may need to come in the form of capital improvements, until the MBTA secures a larger workforce.
The MBTA will also conduct an equity analysis of the new system, Johnson said, although he said he was confident that the new route map will be more equitable than the current system.
The MBTA board’s decision follows months of public debate over the new route map, which officials say will increase access to hospitals and senior centers, and balance agency resources during peak times to create more reliable service. But critics say proposed cuts in the new plan would make transit more difficult for vulnerable residents and argue the MBTA has not done enough to educate riders about the proposal.
The revised bus network was first announced in May and redrafted in October in response to more than 20,000 public comments. The second draft included changes to 85 of 133 initially proposed bus routes, adding or shifting lines to better reach medical facilities, walking back changes originally proposed for lines like the Route 39 bus, which runs from Forest Hills to Back Bay station, and making new cuts, including — to the ire of some riders — the Route 94 bus, which currently runs between Davis and Medford Square stations.
Officials from Everett, Chelsea, and Boston voiced support for the project over voicemails played during the meeting’s public comment period.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said the city fully supports the project, which she said “represents a major step forward for our regional transit system.”
“We very much need every step towards increased service frequency, more direct routes where people need to go, and a bus network that actually aligns with today’s travel patterns,” Wu advised the Board in her voicemail.
Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch said he has heard directly from the mayors of Newton and Medford, who have both expressed concerns with the new line. He said the design process should remain an open dialogue.
“I will support the vote with that caveat,” Koch said.
Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn sent a letter to the Board of Directors Nov. 16, citing ongoing concerns over reduced frequency, the loss of connections, and the elimination of some routes, which she said will disproportionately impact the city’s low- and middle-income residents. Lungo-Koehn said the MBTA addressed some of the city’s initial concerns, outlined in an earlier letter to Poftak, but left significant holes, particularly in West Medford, one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods.
“That doesn’t follow their premise of trying to make this as equitable as possible,” Lungo-Koehn said.
“I feel like we weren’t fully heard,” she said. “As of recent, I feel that they did hear us in our first letter somewhat, but we definitely have residents that are going to be negatively impacted.”
The MBTA board also approved new fare evasion regulations that target the fraudulent use of a reduced-fare credential. Again, a written warning comes first, then the first three citations will include a $75 fine, with $150 fines issued for all subsequent citations. All citations would reset on a rolling basis every three years, said Director of Transit Policy Rachel Morse.
The MBTA would also issue an annual report on warnings and citations, Morse said.
“We have a legal obligation as the MBTA to enact fare-evasion regulations,” Lynsey Heffernan, assistant general manager for policy and transit planning. “In addition, I would note that we also have a separate legal authority in order to maximize revenue.”
Until January 2021, evasion fines were set by Massachusetts law. No warnings were issued, and fines were $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second, and $600 for each subsequent offense.
That law was amended in 2020, passing control of fines levels and penalties to the MBTA, but today, in the absence of concrete regulation, the T is not currently issuing any citations for evasion.
Heffernan said transit police are currently unable to “respond in any meaningful way” if they see a rider who refuses to pay and are not issuing any citations for fair evasion.
“We really want the MBTA to implement a reduced fare program,” said Catherine Gleason, program and policy coordinator at LivableStreets Alliance. She added that an evasion penalty system could disproportionately impact low-income riders, without the balance of lower-cost options.
Heffernan said the ultimate goal is to decriminalize fare-evasion and establish fines between $10 and $250.
She said the MBTA’s immediate goal is to begin issuing citations again, although it would also start giving warnings for fare-skippers’ first offense. Heffernan said civilian fare inspectors may be implemented later, but emphasized that they are not currently a priority.
“Whether it’s $1.70 on a bus or a commuter rail, we’re not in the business and don’t want to be in the business of arresting people for not paying their fare,” Heffernan said.