When the MBTA faced the COVID-19 crisis, the first thing that had to be done was to provide employees with ways to protect themselves, including hand sanitizer.
However, in March, that was nearly impossible as there was a run on hand sanitizer and little to none could be found through the traditional supply channels.
On Monday, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak told the Fiscal Management Control Board (FMCB) they decided to bring the operation in-house at the Everett Shops on Lower Broadway. Not being able to get normal quantities, the MBTA ordered in bulk and took delivery of 12, 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer one month ago.
Now, MBTA employees have formed their own distribution network.
“We have bulk sanitizer which we are refilling into bottles at our Everett Shops and distributing to our employees and at all the stations,” said Poftak. “We collect all the empty sanitizer bottles and bring them in and deliver them to the Everett Shops – where they are disinfected, refilled and brought back to distributed back to the workforce again.”
The system has been a game-changer and has provided plenty of sanitizer to the drivers and employees on the front lines helping people get back and forth to work during the pandemic – particularly those heading to work in health care jobs.
Officials said employees at the Everett Shops fill bottles ranging from 1 oz. to 4 oz. and to 6 oz. sizes. After disinfecting and refilling, they are labeled and sent back out.
So far, they have circulated 11,800 bottles from the Everett facility.
• Ridership down Significantly
Poftak said they are still maintaining a reduced service level on the T, but have seen ridership plummet – and there are budgetary implications to that which will have to be hammered out in working sessions throughout May prior to the submission of the MBTA Budget in late May.
“In general, we’re maintaining the level of service we’ve provided the last two weeks, which is a modified Saturday schedule,” he said. “We’re seeing 20 percent of our typical ridership on the bus and 8 percent of our typical ridership on the subway. The Blue Line is the one outlier on subway service is at 13 percent of its typical ridership…Many of the individuals still using the services are health care workers and health care professionals so the T is providing a critical service despite the lower numbers.”
At this point, they are providing about 85,000 trips per day on the bus and about 40,000 trips per day on the subway.
The MBTA has received approximately $827 million through the CARES Act to help them close the gaps in dropped ridership now and into the future. MBTA officials said they would need to use about $217 million of that right now to close the budget gaps for loss in revenues, but the number continues to grow and they must be prepared to have that funding on hand for the next fiscal year as well – when ridership could continue to drop off.
MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the MBTA budget will need to be something that is more of a moving target than most budgets from past years. With so much up in the air, it will need to be “reassessed and changed over time,” she said.
Chair Joe Aiello said trying to pin down budget numbers now is very difficult given the uncertain times. He said it is important to remain flexible and ready to go if demand jumps. However, he said they need to be prepared if things don’t bounce back to previous ridership levels.
“This is a little like throwing darts after your third beer,” he said.
“In the end, it will be a decision made by others about the economy,” he said. “Things could change on a moment’s notice. There could be something happen on a Thursday or Friday and on Monday there is a huge demand for our services. We need to maintain operational flexibility and quick response flexibility. I’m less concerned in trying to get the numbers right. You have to think about being flexible to get through what is a very time with the virus and the economy.”
• COVID-19 in the Workforce
As far as their own workforce goes, out of about 6,400 employees, there are 83 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Some 31 of those T workers have recovered and are cleared to go back to work. One worker, however, has passed away from the virus.
MBTA management has developed a five-tiered approach to testing among the workforce, with workers having the ability to be tested with other first responders at the state’s facility outside Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.
If a worker has been potentially exposed to a positive case, they are notified and told to watch for symptoms. The same system is also being used for contractors, like the Keolis commuter rail.
• Crowding in the Bus
Despite the lower levels of usage on the T, there are still bus routes that are crowded at certain times of day. Those buses are monitored carefully and reinforcements are sent in so that buses don’t get too crowded with people who don’t have room to socially distance.
“We do actively monitor where we have crowding and full buses,” Poftak said. “There is a button operators have to press if their bus is full.”
That data is analyzed three times a day and reports are generated about where crowding occurs. When possible, other bus resources are dispatched to the overcrowded routes.