The MBTA has fewer bus drivers now than it had at the start of the year, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the schedule.
That’s because instead of cutting bus service to reflect its shrinking staff, the agency plans to advertise mostly the same service for the spring, starting this Sunday, despite expecting to cancel about 5 percent of those trips, spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said.
The decision to keep the bus schedule largely the same while the number of drivers shrinks will force more riders to rely on scheduled buses that will never show up and marks a departure from the MBTA’s previous strategy amid bus driver shortages.
Since late 2021, when the MBTA was canceling about 5 percent of bus trips, the agency has repeatedly slashed service as it has failed to attract and retain enough drivers. At least that way, the thinking goes, riders know what to expect.
To attract bus driver applicants over the past year, the T launched an ad campaign, increased its tuition reimbursement, added a $4,500 signing bonus, and eliminated a commercial driver’s license requirement.
But it hasn’t been enough.
The agency most recently cut bus service Dec. 18, and canceled 5.1 percent of bus trips that month, Pesaturo has previously said. The T canceled 3.4 percent of trips in January and 4.4 percent in February, according to Pesaturo.
Now the T has 1,470 bus drivers, chief human resources officer Tom Waye told board members Thursday, down from 1,512 in January. The MBTA’s budget allows for 1,823 bus drivers, Waye said.
But the new spring bus schedule announced Thursday is basically unchanged, with just one fewer trip on one line, two lines with one more trip each, and one line with two additional trips.
Pesaturo said “several” new drivers are expected to complete training this month.
“The MBTA is constantly tracking dropped trips and developing projections for service delivery levels,” he said in an e-mail. “With the development of summer schedules already underway, the MBTA is considering all options as it develops a schedule on which riders can rely.”
Stacy Thompson, executive director of the public transportation advocacy group LivableStreets Alliance, said riders prefer consistency.
“They should be aiming for people to have the information they can revolve their lives around,” she said. “That’s better than having an ambitious plan they know they can’t meet.”
The cuts to bus service, combined with the T’s reduced subway service, are hitting Black and Hispanic riders in Boston particularly hard, as their access to jobs has decreased more than other residents, research from national public transportation organization TransitCenter found. Riders who can afford it are abandoning the system altogether at times.
Chief financial officer Mary Ann O’Hara told board members Thursday to expect even less revenue from paying commuters in fiscal year 2024 than previously projected, as ridership continues to lag. O’Hara said systemwide ridership has recovered just 61 percent from pre-pandemic levels, while bus ridership has rebounded to 72 percent.
Betsy Taylor, who chairs the MBTA board of directors and its audit and finance subcommittee, responded to O’Hara’s presentation, saying: “I personally think that where we are is the new normal.”
The comment drew criticism from Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce President Jim Rooney, who called it “disappointing and frustrating” in a statement.
“Instead of being a victim, the leaders at the MBTA need to offer ridership goals, a strategy, and strong results,” he said. “The people of the Commonwealth — the T’s riders — and the T’s workforce deserve inspirational leadership and a safe, reliable, and accessible MBTA.”
The MBTA’s starting wage for bus drivers is $22.21 per hour and falls behind other transit agencies in Massachusetts where the living wage is much lower, including Lawrence, Attleboro, and Springfield. The MBTA makes drivers start as part-time employees, further limiting their earnings.
Governor Maura Healey has not yet named a permanent general manager or replaced any of former governor Charlie Baker’s T board members.
Material from State House News Service was used in this report.