T’s GM on bus reliability: ‘Our customers depend on it’

The MBTA is focusing on improving bus service, increasing efficiency through dedicated bus lanes, and rebuilding its facilities so they can accommodate electric vehicles, the public transit agency’s general manager said in an interview with the Reporter.

Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, buses have remained one of the “most durable” parts of the transit system, which also includes the subway, trolleys, commuter rail, and ferry. Ridership on buses has hovered around 60 percent capacity, while the subway is at 42 percent, and the commuter lines at 35 percent.

Bus ridership, which includes essential workers who continue to come in every weekday amid coronavirus, fell to 20 percent early in the pandemic, before bouncing up to 40 percent in summer 2020 and arriving at 60 percent this summer.

Ridership on the Route 28 bus is even higher, at 78 percent, and does not include numbers from the fare-free pilot that began on Aug. 29 and runs through Nov. 29. The route runs from Mattapan Square to the Ruggles MBTA station in Roxbury.

The Route 28 bus struggles with reliability as it goes up and down the busy thoroughfares of Blue Hill Avenue and Warren Street. The slow ride has driven MBTA officials to consider how to speed up bus trips and increase reliability.

“We know our customers depend on it,” said Steve Poftak, who took over as general manager in 2018 after serving for three years on the MBTA’s oversight board.

“Success breeds success,” he said in pressing for more dedicated bus lanes. “If a bus ride is faster and more reliable, more people want to take the bus and it’s viewed as an option.”

Officials are working on a dedicated bus lane in the Route 28 corridor, and aiming to avoid the controversy of 2009, when an express busway was sought. But the “28X” proposal, as it was known, drew fire from opponents in the community who were concerned about the elimination of parking spaces and the loss of trees along the Blue Hill Avenue median.

Poftak said MBTA officials are working with community leaders “to make sure we get that right” this time around.
This time around, he said, in part due to the pandemic, there is a “broader acknowledgment” about the importance of a reliable bus system.

A new fare collection system, which allows riders to use their phones and credit cards as a MBTA pass, is expected to be operational system-wide in 2024. That will likely speed up bus travel, as people can easily board the bus, rather than wait in line as someone fumbles with change or feeds a ticket into a machine.

Poftak acknowledged a trust deficit remains among riders who are seeking to get to their destinations in a timely manner. “We can always improve our reliability. We are working hard to hire up, to get more people out there so we can get more service out there,” he said.

“I think we are facing challenges like almost every other business is facing challenges in terms of staffing levels right now,” he added, referencing the restaurant sector and other industries that are searching for workers. “That’s not a funding issue. We have the funds allocated, we’re just having to hire and train and properly certify bus operators and train operators. It’s not a simple thing.”

The improvements, along with new Red Line cars with more capacity and more frequent service, come as the Greater Boston area sees a population boom that will add to the T’s burden of shuttling customers across the city on a daily basis.

The agency is working with city officials in Boston, Quincy, and elsewhere, who control the roads and signals to help buses move along in a faster manner.

“The T can’t do it alone,” Poftak said.

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