Impacts of COVID-19 on Transportation
Starting in March, there were dramatic declines in travel activity across the Commonwealth due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Governor Baker declared a State of Emergency on March 12, 2020 and issued a Stay at Home Advisory on March 23, 2020. The Stay at Home Advisory restricted all non-essential movement and contact, and airline, transit, vehicle, and bicycle activity declined on a statewide level compared to 2019. Pedestrian activity saw gains over 2019 levels at the beginning of the year, a trend that largely continued throughout the pandemic.
Changes in travel and other behavior in response to COVID-19 have wide-ranging impacts on MassDOT and the MBTA as organizations as well as on our performance indicators. While performance in some areas was not greatly impacted, other areas saw drastic changes. Going forward, MassDOT and the MBTA are adapting as recovery continues, and in some cases reassessing what we measure, how we measure it, and rethinking targets and goals for the future.
Implications for MassDOT and MBTA Performance Reporting
Tracker 2020 reports performance on the fiscal year, which runs from July 2019 to June 2020 (unless otherwise noted). The pandemic began in March, and so the final quarter of the fiscal year saw impacts from COVID-19. While most of the performance in Tracker is reported as the typical annual totals, for some measures there are changes to reflect the impact of the pandemic on performance, which include:
- Partial year reporting
- Reporting performance pre-pandemic and during pandemic
- Omitted reporting for measures that could not be tabulated
In addition, some measures and targets were not updated or reported. For these measures, targets will be reassessed going into 2021 as recovery continues.
The pandemic has unique impacts on each MassDOT division and the MBTA. The implications for division operations, outcomes, and associated performance reporting are outlined below.
While the pandemic and travel restrictions significantly affected the traveling public, the Highway Division largely maintained core operations and services through the ongoing pandemic. Workplace health and safety plans were quickly enhanced to meet state and federal guidance and ensure that the State workforce and its partners could safely continue its mission of design and construction of public works. Remote work practices have been adopted wherever possible, and virtual stakeholder engagement has been successfully implemented, allowing for continued delivery of the Capital Program.
Where feasible, the Highway Division took advantage of reduced traffic volumes to accelerate specific construction projects. MassDOT also announced its Shared Streets and Spaces grant program to help communities quickly implement or expand improvements to streetscapes in support of safety and public health. With less congestion on the roadways, speeding unfortunately became a greater concern, with proportionally more speeding violations being issued in March 2020 through June 2020 than during the same period in 2019.
While roadway safety and reducing crashes remain a priority, performance within the Highway Division key measures was not adversely impacted by the pandemic.
Full reporting on Highway Division’s FY20 performance can be found here.
Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV)
The pandemic brought major operational changes to the core business functions of the RMV. With the Stay at Home Advisory, the RMV stopped most in-person interactions with customers, with only select Service Centers open for essential transactions that could not be completed over the phone, by mail, or online. The RMV stopped administering road tests from mid-March to mid-June, creating a backlog of over 17,000 road tests to reschedule. In addition, customers were granted grace periods for deadlines for inspections and license renewals, and the federal deadline for REAL ID compliance was pushed back a year to October 1, 2021.
With reopening, the RMV continues to adjust its operations to ensure the health and safety of its employees and customers by:
- Encouraging customers to complete transactions online when possible,
- Utilizing drop-off boxes at Service Centers for registrations,
- Switching to an appointment-based system for the Service Center, and
- Implementing senior hours in September at select locations for license renewals.
For Tracker FY20 reporting, the biggest change is shifting away from measuring wait times for Service Centers. Service Center wait times are reported for the partial year from July 2019 through February 2020. For the remainder of the fiscal year, number of days to get an appointment and percent of appointment no-shows are used for Service Center performance. The FY20 performance also reflects changes in where transactions were completed, and month by month performance is shown for select indicators to highlight the impact of the pandemic on RMV operations.
Additional details on the changes to RMV operations and the full FY20 RMV performance can be found here.
Rail and Transit Division
The Rail and Transit Division oversees the Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) and is responsible for MassDOT-owned rail throughout the state. During the pandemic, the RTAs saw drops in ridership due to the decrease in commuting and travel, while crowding became an area of concern on RTA routes. Many RTAs also suspended fare collection during the peak of pandemic, while maintaining reduced operations. Pausing fare collection reduced driver and passenger exposure to virus transmission but resulted in an impact to farebox recovery ratios (FRR). As we continue recovering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen RTA ridership rebound more than ridership on the MBTA. While fixed route fare collection increased through the end of the fiscal year, demand response fare collection continued to decline. Although FY20 performance metrics for RTAs were negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic from March through June 2020, MassDOT and the RTAs worked closely together during that period to ensure that essential services continued to be delivered safely and in compliance with the Governor’s pandemic directives.
For MassDOT Rail, the pandemic caused delays and workforce issues for contractors coming in from out of state to work on rail construction projects. The procurement of track materials also became a challenge as some manufacturing plants closed due to a shortage of workers and lost shifts because of COVID-19. Going forward, MassDOT Rail is proactively working with contractors from out of state to ensure work can be completed and is also procuring a larger inventory of materials to keep on hand to mitigate late deliveries.
While the RTAs across the Commonwealth and MassDOT Rail have adjusted their operations during the pandemic and recovery, the performance reporting in Tracker FY20 remains relatively unchanged compared to last year.
The complete FY20 performance reporting for the RTAs can be found here and the MassDOT Rail reporting here.
The pandemic and Stay at Home Order brought a decline in the number of flights going in and out of general aviation airports across the state, with an 18 percent decline over the same period in 2019. The pandemic also caused delays to project contracting, reducing the performance of on-time project delivery. Airports across the state over which MassDOT has authority received approximately $28.7M from the CARES Act, using the funding for payroll, utilities and maintenance, and operating costs at those airports.
While the Aeronautics Divisions saw disruptions to airport operations due to the pandemic, there were no major changes to the measures reported for Tracker FY20. Full reporting can be found here.
The pandemic and associated Stay at Home advisory, and now ongoing telework, are the cause of drastic declines in ridership on MBTA services. Overall, MBTA ridership experienced a drop of more than 84 percent between February and April 2020. By June 2020, trips had returned to only 26 percent of February levels. Ridership on select bus routes and the Blue Line have not decreased to the same extent, as residents served by these routes continue traveling to work or may have fewer alternative transportation options. Since March, the MBTA has adjusted the service to align with demand, reducing service at the start of the pandemic and increasing service levels to continue safely serving essential trips.
As the pandemic goes on, the MBTA continues to make employee and rider safety its top priority, implementing a multi-pronged approach to ensure safety and reduce crowding where possible. These efforts include:
- Implementing real-time crowding information for most bus routes,
- Making recent historical crowding estimations available for the Red, Orange and Blue Lines,
- Adjusting service as needed to run additional buses where crowding occurs,
- Requiring riders and operators to wear face coverings, and implementing enhanced disinfecting protocols to ensure stations, vehicles, and high touch areas remain clean,
- Implementing on-site fever screening for MBTA employees in the spring and on-site employee COVID-19 testing by later in the summer, and
- Temporarily suspending fare collection and implementing rear-door boarding on buses and trolleys at street level stops as a safety precaution from March 21, 2020 to July 20, 2020. After safety protocols, shields, and face covering requirements were put into place, fare collection and front-door boarding resumed on buses and trolleys.
Going forward, the MBTA will continue to prioritize safety, but will also have to contend with the loss in fare revenues associated with decreases in ridership. In order to protect essential service for those who depend upon it, the MBTA will need to reduce service where there are fewer riders. Proposed adjustments would preserve the majority of MBTA service while aligning service levels with changing ridership and demand, protecting access and quality of service for transit-critical customers, and reducing primarily non-essential services.
While the pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge for the MBTA, select capital projects were accelerated due to decreased ridership, including work on Blue Line tracks in May and acceleration of the Green Line branch repairs.
In Tracker FY20 for the MBTA, there are some measures that cannot be reported due the changes in scheduled service throughout the last part of the fiscal year. In addition, reporting is provided separately for pre-pandemic and during pandemic for select measures including crowding and the fare recovery ratio. Certain measures do not have targets associated with them for Tracker FY20 and will be updated in 2021 as recovery continues.
To see the full FY20 MBTA performance report, click here.