The continuing hit on ridership and revenue the MBTA sustained at the start of the pandemic is forcing a rethinking of where public transportation service is most important and how much more it should cost, if it should cost more at all.
A report this week before the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board raised “radically different” approaches to how the T can operate with a greatly reduced revenue stream while still serving the riders who most rely on trains and buses to get to and from work, grocery stores and medical services.
In the coming months, MBTA administrators and the oversight board will look at how to reconfigure train and bus service in ways that might impose major cuts in some areas while beefing up frequency in others, according to State House News Service coverage of the meeting.
The fact the MBTA saw huge declines in riders and revenue starting in March wasn’t a surprise, after the governor ordered most businesses shut down. And the pandemic hit when the MBTA already faced a big deficit that state lawmakers were starting to address. Any efforts to boost funding for the T evaporated with the coronavirus.
There’s no underestimating just how big an impact the pandemic has had on ridership. The News Service said transportation officials expected to see about 10% of pre-pandemic ridership in July and were heartened to find trains and buses had crowds about 18% the previous normal size. That meant there was more revenue for the month, but still far below any “normal” year.
This new effort by transportation officials could lead to a leaner and more rider-friendly transportation system. It would be disastrous if the pandemic brought the gutting of public transportation in Massachusetts, so rejiggering a system logically, while acknowledging the long-term likelihood of fewer riders and lower revenues, should be the way to go.
Kat Benesh, an MBTA employee who was one of the people leading this discussion at the Control Board meeting on Monday, said, “We want to make sure that when we do make service reductions, it’s not across-the-board, everywhere is the same, but strategic where we’re investing.”
These are likely to be permanent changes to the public transportation system, so they have to be done right and with eyes wide open.