MBTA officials are beginning to envision a post-COVID-19 public transit system — one that may include changes to services given a possible looming budget gap.
The main problem is ridership, which plunged at the beginning of the pandemic as riders fled the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system in fear of being exposed to the coronavirus.
Since then, ridership has ticked up, but not dramatically.
"We are beginning to see modest increases in ridership," MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said during a meeting Monday of the MBTA's Fiscal and Management Control Board.
Poftak credited some of that slight uptick on universities coming back into session that are located along the Green Line.
But another, perhaps larger, factor that continues to weigh down ridership is the reluctance of some of the state's largest companies — particularly those in the greater Boston area — to require all of their employees to return to their offices and instead let them to continue working from home.
That means fewer public transit commuters, a trend that could continue into 2021.
At the moment, the system is meeting very modest revenue projections, according to transit officials.
But as those projections rise dramatically in the first part of 2021, officials say there's no guarantee that actual ridership and revenues will increase to meet those estimates.
MBTA officials said that as they try to re-imagine a post-COVID-19 MBTA, there are several possible outcomes for those who rely on the public transit system.
Riders may have to walk further, pay more, transfer more or switch transit modes (buses, subway trains, commuter rails) more frequently during their trips. The frequency of trips may also be pared back and some routes may be restructured.
"You can't provide services you can't pay for," said Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, adding that officials should "not get too excited" about how quickly fare revenue may return to pre-pandemic levels.
Pollack and others say the pandemic has also provided the MBTA with a chance to take a closer look at the level and scope of service they provide and whether there are better ways to serve those most in need of public transit.