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MBTA commits to more frequent bus trips

Commuters board an MBTA bus. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Commuters board an MBTA bus. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Everett, Lynn and Roxbury are among the areas where MBTA bus service would increase significantly under a new plan rolled out Monday, but funding and staffing uncertainty pose obstacles for the effort to reimagine a core pillar of the agency's operations.

In what MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak pitched as an "exciting inflection point," officials unveiled a draft new map for the constellation of bus routes in Boston and dozens of surrounding cities and towns.

The proposal would boost bus service across the board by 25% over a five-year period, including a 70% increase in the amount of MBTA bus travel on weekends, aimed at areas where the existing, somewhat archaic bus routes do not currently meet evolving demands on the system.

About 27% of current weekday bus service is "frequent," defined as a bus running every 15 minutes or sooner, under the current schedule. The new draft plan would push that rate up to 50%.

T officials project their plan would newly give 275,000 more Bay Staters access to bus trips every 15 minutes or less, running all day, seven days a week, adding to the 1.5 million residents who have access to high-frequency transit or bus today.

However, persistent financial pressures and ongoing labor struggles could drive a buzzsaw through the lofty effort. The agency estimates the bus overhaul would cost $90 million more per year once implemented, a figure baked into projections that an operating budget gap of hundreds of millions of dollars will erupt at the T next year and grow in subsequent years. To run the increased service, the MBTA would need to hire more drivers, and officials are already struggling to attract enough employees to run the existing bus schedule.

But Poftak sought Monday to position the MBTA as committed to the vision of an expanded bus network in spite of the pitfalls along the way.

"We think this is an important initiative to put forward. This is the MBTA that we think our riders, our bus riders in particular, are really entitled to," Poftak said. "There's been some public discussion with concerns about service cuts and fare increases, and this is our statement that we intend to expand service. We will work on solutions for those out years, but we will work on them with this service level embedded in it."

The T's recent estimates anticipate an operating budget gap of between $236 million and $421 million in fiscal year 2024, with projections showing it is on track to continue growing in the years that follow.

Poftak said the additional costs of the bus expansion are already "taken into account" in those budget projections and committed to addressing financial constraints without backing off plans to boost bus service.

It remains unclear, though, if the T would seek to cut service elsewhere across its network or raise fares in the calculus of budget-balancing, or instead if the outlook would ratchet up tension on Beacon Hill to rethink how Massachusetts funds its largest public transit system.

"We do think there is a conversation to be had as we head into those later years in the middle of the decade about the MBTA's funding needs, but that conversation is going to evolve based on a couple of different issues, a critical piece of which is how ridership stabilizes at some point in the future," Poftak said.

The House in early 2020 mounted a push to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year for transportation via tax and fee increases, but the proposal died in the Senate after COVID-19 hit and top Democrats in both branches have not signaled they have any desire to revive the issue.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who oversees the T but is set to leave office in January, maintained over the course of the earlier debate that he believes the MBTA does not need any new revenues to address its needs. Approaches to MBTA funding and management could play a role in this year's unfolding race for governor.

Many of the route changes floated Monday aim to provide increased service to communities of color and low-income households more likely to rely on buses, which have maintained more demand than the MBTA's subway and commuter rail options over the past two-plus years of depressed ridership.

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"It was demonstrated throughout the pandemic that we have lots of transit-dependent riders that depend on the bus," Poftak said. "This represents a step forward for the T in terms of making the service better and providing more service."

Summaries of the proposed changes broken down by municipality or neighborhood are available online, with dozens of documents reflecting the scale of the project.

One area of focus is the Longwood Medical Area, a bustling hub for both workers and for patients. Today, only two MBTA bus routes serve Longwood every 15 minutes or less; the draft plan would triple that to six routes with frequent Longwood service.

T buses would travel about 70% more in Everett, 40% more in Lynn and 25% more in Roxbury.

"It's time to put the buses where people want them when people want them — today's people, not people from half a century ago," said Metropolitan Area Planning Council Executive Director Marc Draisen, who joined Poftak, lawmakers and transportation advocates at an event to unveil the new map.

Poftak said there will be "very limited circumstances" of bus service cuts as part of the plan to bulk up offerings across the network.

The T will gather feedback on its proposal over the course of the summer, then aim to kick off implementation in spring or summer 2023. Poftak said he expects it will take five years to gradually transform the bus map.

In the meantime, the agency will need to overcome hiring challenges that have left it unable to fulfill its current promises for bus service.

MBTA Chief of Operations Strategy, Policy and Oversight Kat Benesh said the T has been dropping between 2.5% and 5% of scheduled bus trips in recent weeks, marking only slightly better performance than during the COVID-19 omicron surge that fueled a spate of driver absences.

The MBTA already whittled bus service down a bit in its winter schedule after officials said the agency was dropping one in 20 scheduled trips in the fall.

"It has been some improvement since where we were, but still above where we as an organization would like to be," Benesh said.

A recruitment push featuring hiring bonuses and one-day hiring events has not brought the kind of success MBTA officials once hoped.

"On some level, the hiring bonuses could just be us holding serve," Poftak said. "You've got a number of other private employers that continue to offer bonuses. It's hard for me to tell — are the bonuses working, or are they just keeping us even with the marketplace right now?"

Poftak said his team is considering other options to bring in new drivers and retain those already in the T's workforce, such as integrating commercial driver's license training into the hiring process and other "technical changes."

This article was originally published on May 16, 2022.

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