MBTA OFFICIALS are beginning to assume that ridership will not rise much above current levels, an assumption sharply criticized by the head of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce who is a former T general manager himself.
The MBTA for a long time has taken a Goldilocks approach to ridership for more than a year, assembling forecasts that could be viewed as optimistic, middle-of-the-road, and pessimistic.
At various times, ridership has matched up with each of the forecasts but settled into somewhere between middle-of-the-road and pessimistic.
At a subcommittee meeting of the MBTA board on Thursday, T officials rolled out a new forecast based on recent trends that is slightly lower than the earlier pessimistic forecast. Instead of fare revenue of $444 million in fiscal 2024 under the most pessimistic forecast, the T now projects revenue of $418 million.
Mary Ann O’Hara, the T’s chief financial officer, called the new, lower figure the “new normal of ridership.”
Overall, the new normal assumes ridership will reach 67 percent of pre-pandemic ridership in fiscal 2024, which begins in July. By mode, the breakdown is 56 percent for ferry, 63 percent for subway, 73 percent for bus, and 74 percent for commuter rail. Those ridership levels are all higher than actual ridership in the last half of 2022.
O’Hara asked for the board’s guidance on what ridership forecast to use. There was no consensus, but MBTA board chair Betsy Taylor thought the most pessimistic assumption was on target.
“I personally think where we are is the new normal,” she said. Other board members were less definitive.
James Rooney, the president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, took issue with that assumption, arguing it undercuts the state’s ability to solve such problems as congestion housing, climate change, and economic equity.
“The latest comment from the T board chair that reduced ridership levels is the ‘new normal’ is disappointing and frustrating,” Rooney said in a statement. “A successful business or government agency culture is built on resilience, agility, and optimism – not despair to current challenges. Instead of being a victim, the leaders at the MBTA need to offer ridership goals, a strategy, and strong results. The people of the Commonwealth – the T’s riders – and the T’s workforce deserve inspirational leadership and a safe, reliable, and accessible MBTA.”