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MBTA To Boost Trip Frequency After State Of Emergency Lifts

An MBTA Green Line train leaving Science Park Station en route to Lechmere. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An MBTA Green Line train leaving Science Park Station en route to Lechmere. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

With ridership creeping up to its highest levels since the pandemic began, the MBTA will boost frequency on its subway system and more than two dozen bus routes next month, officials announced Monday.

A new summer schedule that takes effect on June 20 will run Red, Orange and Blue Line trains at close to the same frequency they did in the winter before a package of unpopular service cuts hit, plus deploy more Green Line trolleys on the C, D and E branches.

During peak travel time, riders should expect headways between trains of five minutes on the main center "trunk" of the Red Line, down from 5.5 minutes this spring; 10 minutes on the Red Line's "branches" after it splits to toward either Ashmont or Quincy; seven minutes on the Orange Line, down from eight minutes; five minutes on the Blue Line, down from 5.5 minutes; and anywhere from 7.3 to 8.5 minutes on each of the four Green Line branches, according to an outline of the new schedule MBTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville presented Monday.

The T will also boost midday frequency on the Red and Orange Lines to a level even higher than before the cuts took effect, with headways of six minutes on the Red Line trunk and 7.5 minutes on the Orange Line. That change is driven by a COVID-era shift in which typical rush hours have been less crowded and other times of day have been busier.

Roughly 30 bus routes will also run with greater frequency starting June 20. As previously announced, that target date will also feature restoration of four other bus lines that had been eliminated in the spring service cuts: the Route 18 through Dorchester, the Route 52 from Dedham to Watertown, the Route 55 from the Fenway neighborhood to Copley Square and the Route 68 from Harvard Square to Kendall Square.

The frequency changes are scheduled to arrive five days after Gov. Charlie Baker lifts the COVID-19 state of emergency on June 15.

MBTA officials in December narrowly approved a package of service cuts trimming frequency 20 percent on the Red, Orange and Green Lines and non-essential bus routes and 5 percent on the Blue Line and essential bus routes, responding to a pandemic-fueled sharp decline in travel and fare revenue.

After facing significant criticism and receiving nearly $2 billion in federal emergency aid, T higher-ups pledged in March to reverse the cuts and restore pre-COVID levels across the system "as soon as possible."

The increased bus frequency coming to about 30 routes means that the T will not have as much flexibility in its scheduling, Gonneville said. The agency, which has been scrambling to hire enough workers to run pre-pandemic levels of service, will need to reallocate drivers who in recent months have been available to supplement more crowded routes as needed.

"Right now, essentially, a lot of that flexibility is gone," Gonneville said Monday, later adding, "Those resources have to come from somewhere, and for the most part, those resources are coming from that flexible workforce that we had talked about in the past."

Under the summer schedule, a separate set of nearly 30 bus routes that saw their service increase during the pandemic will still run at elevated frequencies. Gonneville cautioned that MBTA officials face potentially tricky decisions in the fall on whether to keep those at their current levels or boost service on other routes.

Ridership remains well below past norms, but it continues to trend upward.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said Monday that the T carried more riders during the week of May 10, the most recent span with data available, than it has in any week since COVID-19 hit.

Subways reached about 30 percent of pre-pandemic crowds, Poftak said, while buses hit roughly 50 percent of the pre-pandemic baseline. The commuter rail system — now operating on a new schedule with trains at regular intervals rather than bunched around morning and evening peaks — was close to 20 percent.

"We have every reason to believe that trend continued last week and will continue this week," Poftak said.

The forthcoming end to COVID-19 restrictions in Massachusetts could accelerate the "rising action" Poftak described. On May 29, all remaining capacity limits will be lifted, allowing full crowds at the metro Boston area's restaurants, bars, sporting events, concerts and more. Passengers will still be required to wear masks on all MBTA vehicles and in stations after that point.

Poftak also announced Monday that the T on May 29 will switch back to its pre-COVID comfort and crowding standards, turning away from a lower threshold for crowding designed to ensure social distancing.

That will bring an end to the public-facing live crowding information that riders can now access. MBTA staff will continue to track passenger volumes and use that information to plan service levels, Poftak said.

"The real change here is it will not be utilized as a metric that is pushed out publicly any more," he said. "We are coming to the stage in the pandemic, which the governor had laid out over a year ago, where vaccines are now widely available. The widespread availability of the vaccines plus the masking mandate, which remains in place on all MBTA vehicles and facilities, gives us the confidence to change this policy."

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