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MBTA Board Updates: 25% More Bus Service, Driver Hiring, Ridership Recovery

A rough draft map of the T's proposed "high-frequency" bus routes, which could be implemented starting next year under the agency's Bus Network Redesign. Courtesy of the MBTA

A rough draft map of the T’s proposed “high-frequency” bus routes, which could be implemented starting next year under the agency’s Bus Network Redesign. Courtesy of the MBTA

At Thursday's MBTA board meeting, the transit agency's boss, Steve Poftak delivered a lengthy General Manager's report that included lots of  updates on various aspects of the T's operations. Here's a recap of the highlights:

Ridership rebound continues

After climbing steadily through 2021, transit ridership dipped sharply over the winter with another surge in Covid cases from the Omicron virus variant. But riders are coming back to the system.

"We have recovered full from the dip in early January we saw from Omicron," said Poftak.

A chart showing ridership on various MBTA services since fall 2021. After dipping in December and January, ridership has mostly recovered, with bus ridership remaining higher than subway and commuter rail ridership.
Courtesy of the MBTA
Courtesy of the MBTA

Growth on the commuter rail system has been particularly robust this spring: its ridership that now stands at 54 percent of pre-pandemic volumes.

The bus system carried nearly 70 percent of its pre-pandemic passenger volume in April, although ridership dipped during the school vacation week (while Green Line ridership surged from the Boston Marathon).

Two bus routes - the Silver Line 3 to Chelsea and the 16, which runs between Forest Hills and the Andrew Square Red Line station, are actually carrying more riders now than they did in April 2019.

New Bus Routes to Bring More Bus Service

Poftak also announced that proposed new bus routes from its long-planned bus network redesign, which could reconfigure the T's bus route map to reflect new travel patterns and bring more service into fast-growing neighborhoods, would start soliciting feedback from the public next month.

The new map of proposed routes will be posted on the T's website on May 16, and on May 19th, the T will host a virtual online meeting to start collecting public feedback. That virtual hearing will be the first of dozens of outreach events and stakeholder meetings that are being planned for the spring and summer.

But the T isn't just rearranging bus routes: the agency is also pledging to add significantly more bus service overall.

"We will be increasing the amount of bus service by 25 percent across the network," said Poftak.

Meeting that goal will require the T hire a lot more bus drivers, especially after the agency blamed a shortage of drivers for a wide-ranging round of bus service cuts last fall. Poftak shared some encouraging news on that front: a one-day hiring event held earlier this month led to 18 on-the-spot job offers for new drivers, plus 91 interested candidates whom the T will assist in obtaining commercial driver's licenses to drive buses.

The event "got us in a single day what is the equivalent of a month's worth of potential hires," said Poftak.

Advance Notice for Future Rail Line Closures

Poftak also briefed the board on the various maintenance projects that the T is getting done during its 2-week closure of the Blue Line tunnel, a project that took many riders by surprise when it was first announced with little advance notice last month.

As we reported last month, previous subway closure plans had been discussed in at meetings of the T's former, more active governance board, which dissolved last summer. But the current board of directors had not yet been briefed on the T's construction schedule and associated closures.

That changed today: Poftak shared a schedule of upcoming closures and diversions, both planned and currently underway, through the end of June. Expect regular weekend closures on parts of the Red Line, another closure on the outermost portion of the Blue Line (Wonderland to Orient Heights) next month, and ongoing outages of service on the Newburyport/Rockport regional rail line through May.

"This is really what a $2 billion capital program looks like," said Poftak. "We really do balance the level of disruption with the value of the work, but you really do have to disrupt the system in order to do the amount of work that you want done."

Poftak also promised that he would continue to share the T's service disruption plans on a quarterly basis going forward.

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