Maintaining Essential Services During the Pandemic
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continued to have significant impacts on the MBTA in the 2021 fiscal year, primarily through steep declines in MBTA ridership from pre-pandemic levels, and associated revenue losses that will continue to challenge the MBTA in future fiscal years. During the fall of 2020, with federal funding still uncertain, the MBTA launched its Forging Ahead program to develop a system to guide potential service reductions and gather public feedback on the changes. Central to this process was a guiding framework to ensure that service decisions would be focused on ridership and equity for the many essential workers that continued to use the system.
The framework incorporated two measures: ridership propensity, which included measures of pre-COVID ridership levels along with ridership retention during COVID; and transit criticality, which considered where people in low-income households, people of color, and people in low-vehicle households were making trips. Services which had high ridership propensity and served high transit-critical populations were flagged as essential, prioritized for maintaining service at Service Delivery Policy levels. Services with low values for one or both measures—particularly those with both low ridership propensity and low transit criticality—were considered for service reductions.
The transit criticality portion of the framework focused on trips by populations that were most important to serve, regardless of whether the trips happened on the MBTA. While access is traditionally measured in terms of residential data, the transit criticality measure relied on location-based services data to account for where people were traveling during the pandemic, not just where they lived. A deep dive into the transit criticality metric can be found on the OPMI Data Blog.
Using the transit criticality and ridership propensity metrics, the MBTA was able to prioritize maintaining high-quality transit service for the riders that remained on the system during the pandemic, and those deemed most transit-critical. A map of bus routes classified as “essential” is shown below.
Forging Ahead: “Essential” MBTA Bus Routes
Ridership measures the number of rides the MBTA system provides each year. In accordance with industry standard, ridership is measured as unlinked passenger trips (UPT), which reflect each time a passenger boards a transit vehicle. Unlinked passenger trips include estimates for trips that are not directly measured, such as behind-the-gate transfers and trips in which riders do not interact with the fare system. Ridership estimates for FY21 may be adjusted slightly in the future.
Riders completed a total of 119 million unlinked passenger trips across all MBTA services in FY21, or roughly 372,000 UPT on an average weekday. This represents a 57 percent decrease from 274 million UPT in FY20, and a 67 percent decrease from 363 million UPT in FY19, primarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bus service retained the highest proportion of its ridership from FY20 to FY21 compared to other modes with a 42 percent decrease in ridership, followed by the RIDE with a 45 percent decrease in UPT. Ferry saw the greatest ridership decline of 87 percent from FY20 to FY21, followed by commuter rail with an 80 percent decrease. Heavy rail and light rail ridership decreased by 61 and 63 percent respectively from FY20 to FY21, but the Blue Line retained a relatively higher proportion of ridership with a 51 percent decline. Heavy rail, light rail, and bus ridership combined accounted for approximately 95 percent of system ridership in FY21.
Regional congestion affects the bus travel time and reliability experienced by MBTA bus riders, and municipal management of streets and signals has a significant impact on bus service. Through partnerships with municipalities and communities in the region, the MBTA has identified key corridors for focused investment in bus priority infrastructure to facilitate fewer delays, faster bus trips, and more reliable and frequent service. Bus transit priority features can include bus lanes or shared bus/bike lanes; transit signal priority (TSP), which gives preference to buses at traffic lights; and queue jumps, which allow buses to bypass waiting traffic with short priority lanes and early green signals. Other features include streetscape and roadway changes, such as curb extensions at bus stops, to make bus movements more efficient.
Bus Priority Infrastructure
Transit priority projects have been implemented in several municipalities in Greater Boston, including Arlington, Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, Malden, Quincy, Roslindale, Somerville, and Watertown. At the end of FY21, a total of 17.7 bus priority miles were active, an increase of nearly 9 miles from 9.8 miles in FY20.
At the end of FY21, 81 transit priority signals were active, nearly doubled from the 44 signals at the end of FY20. More information on in-progress and upcoming transit priority projects can be found on the MBTA website.
Passenger Benefits from Bus Priority Corridors
Corridors in which transit priority projects are most impactful have not only high congestion and delay, but also high ridership to benefit the most possible passengers. In the spring rating of FY21, 36,000 passenger miles were in bus priority corridors or queue jumps on an average weekday, a decrease from 57,000 passenger miles in the fall of FY20 due to lower ridership during the pandemic. This, however, equates to 8.1 percent of average weekday passenger miles with direct benefits from bus priority corridors, an increase from 5.6 percent in the fall of FY20. Many more riders experience indirect benefits from bus priority corridors due to the improvement in reliability to the rest of the route during operating hours. In the spring rating of FY21, 42 percent of passenger miles on an average weekday were on trips that benefitted from bus priority corridors and thus received indirect benefits from transit priority projects, up from 33 percent in the fall of FY20.
Using pre-pandemic rider demographic estimates, we can also approximate the indirect transit priority benefits experienced by riders of color and riders in low-income households. Thirty-nine percent of passenger miles traveled by riders of color and 42 percent of passenger miles traveled by riders in low-income households received indirect benefits from transit priority projects finished by the spring of FY21. Forty-two percent of all riders, of all races and incomes, experienced these indirect benefits.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are reported as the MBTA’s total GHG emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (kg CO2e) and as the rate normalized by total unlinked passenger trips (UPT). This measure does not account for GHG savings acquired via mode shift, from trips taken on transit rather than in single-occupancy vehicles, which is estimated to be at least four times larger than net emissions.
A new electricity procurement contract supplied by 100 percent renewable energy sources went into effect on January 1, 2021—as a result, the 36 percent of the MBTA’s GHG emissions that typically come from electricity usage have been avoided. In FY21, the MBTA emitted 287 million kg CO2e, a significant decrease from 355 million kg CO2e in FY20, likely due primarily to the renewable energy purchase. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts aims to reduce GHG emissions by 50 percent by 2050 compared to 2005 levels—the MBTA is on track to meet that goal. The rate of GHG emissions was 2.41 kg CO2e per UPT, an increase from 1.29 in FY20. This increase in the rate of GHG emissions despite the reduction in total emissions is largely due to the significant drop in unlinked passenger trips, the measure denominator, in FY21. Ridership estimates for FY21 may be adjusted slightly in the future.
Fare Recovery Ratio
The fare recovery ratio is the revenue received from fares and passes divided by total operational expenses, excluding expenses due to debt. This measures how much of the cost of providing transit services is paid directly by MBTA riders. The FY21 fare recovery ratio was 10.2 percent, a significant decrease from the pre-pandemic ratio of 42.7 percent in FY19.
Total Capital Investment Plan (CIP) Spend
The MBTA Capital Investment Plan (CIP) is a rolling five-year investment program to improve and modernize assets, meet strategic priorities and performance goals, and expand service. The annually updated CIP includes over 400 capital projects working to improve reliability, safety, and accessibility for riders. More information on the current CIP and historical updates by fiscal year can be found on the MBTA website.
CIP spend largely funds projects in two broad categories: projects focused on reliability and modernization, and projects focused on expansion of the MBTA system or MBTA service. Major capital projects currently include the Green Line Extension, the Red Line Transformation and Orange Line Transformation programs, South Coast Rail, and Fare Transformation. Total CIP spend in FY21 increased by $250 million over FY20, with a total of $1.93 billion spent on capital improvement projects. Of the total, $1.36 billion was spent on reliability and modernization projects, with $563 million spent on expansion. Total capital spend surpassed the CIP spend target by 10 percent in FY21.
Mainline Revenue Derailments
Vehicle derailments are defined as a non-collision event in which one or more wheels of a rail transit vehicle unintentionally leaves the rails. Mainline revenue derailments indicate that the train was accepting passengers when the derailment occurred. Revenue derailments have most frequently occurred as a result of human error. Common issues include improperly setting track switches, failing to ensure switches are properly aligned, and violating red track signals. The Green Line has historically been more susceptible to human error derailments as a result of the diverse travel environments within which Green Line trolleys operate, as well as the fact that several of the automated train and switch controls utilized on heavy rail have yet to be implemented on light rail. The Green Line Train Protection System (GLTPS) has four overlapping phases prior to final implementation and is currently primarily focused on the Equipment Design and Validation Phase. The other three phases include Vehicle Installation, Wayside Installation, and Operational Integration, and are scheduled for completion in 2024. When deployed, the system will reduce the risk of red signal violations, train-to-train collisions, and over-speed derailments by limiting the speed at which the train may operate at specified locations and monitoring the track ahead for obstacles.
Two mainline revenue derailments occurred in 2020, a significant reduction from the eight in 2019. One derailment occurred on the Green Line and was related to human error, while the other occurred on commuter rail and was caused by adverse weather.
Actual Expense Details
Total expenses (not including capital spending) encompass wages and benefits for employees, materials and services involved in providing transit service, contracted transit services like commuter rail and the RIDE, other operating expenses, and debt service. Total expenses grew 1.8 percent from FY20 to $2.16 billion in FY21, while operating expenses grew 0.8 percent. Total expenses in the FY22 budget are $2.35 billion, an increase of 3 percent above the FY21 budget baseline.
Total revenues encompass fare revenues from transit riders, other operating revenues such as from advertisements and parking, state and local assistance including sales tax revenue, and other non-operating revenues. Total revenues grew 16.3 percent from FY20 to $2.64 billion in FY21, largely due to non-operating sources and additional state and federal assistance, while operating revenues (fares and other operating revenues) decreased by 67.5 percent. Total revenue sources in the FY22 budget are $2.77 billion, a 2 percent increase above the FY21 budget due to one-time federal revenue and fare revenue, recovering from historic lows due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bus Fleet Composition
Bus fleet composition measures the proportions of the MBTA bus fleet that are electric or hybrid, or utilize compressed natural gas (CNG) or diesel fuel sources. Buses classified as electric include battery-electric buses and electric trolley buses, while buses classified as hybrid—with both electric and conventional fuel options—include traditional hybrid buses and Dual Mode Silver Line buses. In FY21, the MBTA’s roughly 1,300-bus fleet was 2.5 percent electric, 44.1 percent hybrid, 13.2 percent CNG, and 40.2 percent diesel.
Bus fleet composition particularly impacts residents living near bus routes due to criteria air pollutants emitted. While diesel-only buses emit higher levels of criteria air pollutants, alternative fuel buses (including electric, CNG, and hybrid) can mitigate air pollution caused by buses for nearby residents. Of residents living within a quarter mile of MBTA bus routes in FY21, roughly 49 percent were near routes running alternative fuel vehicles, 43 percent were near routes running vehicles of mixed fuel types, and 9 percent were near routes running diesel-only buses. Of low-income households within a quarter mile of MBTA bus routes, roughly 50 percent were near alternative fuel routes, and 8 percent were near diesel-only routes. And of residents of color living near MBTA bus routes, 45 percent were near alternative fuel routes and 8 percent were near diesel-only routes.