By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – Along with just about everything else, COVID-19 has upended our commuting customs. And a new survey shows how problematic this could be to our transportation future.

Before the pandemic hit, nearly half of us regularly used the subway, buses or commuter rail to get around. And the state was investing heavily in getting more of us to do so, with the promise of even more spending to come.

But the new poll from the MassINC Polling Group and the Barr Foundation finds the outbreak has, at least for now, stalled that momentum.

The MBTA is starting a public education campaign called “Ride Safer,” asking riders to wear masks. (WBZ-TV)

“The modes that people are planning to use more are the ones they can use by themselves,” said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group.

For instance, 28% say they expect to be driving alone more once we’re out of the woods, while only 10% expect to leave their car at home. And a third or more say they’ll be less inclined to use the bus, subway or commuter rail.

The survey finds continued strong support for tax hikes to fund improved transportation infrastructure, which includes roads and bridges along with the T. But the cost of coaxing customers back to mass transit seems sure to go up.

Asked what would make them very comfortable about using it in the future, respondents cited sanitizing measures for people and facilities, limiting crowds on platforms and onboard, and insisting on masks and fever scans. None of that will come cheaply, even as revenue from the customer base is declining.

“The new reality,” said Koczela “is that there’s just a bunch of different, new opinion dynamics in this state that policymakers are going to have to consider when they try to balance everybody’s wishes and desires.”

Lawmakers have some breathing room; a major state funding bill that includes a gas tax hike and new fees on ride-sharing services, plus a large grant from the federal CARES Act earlier this spring, will help the MBTA soak up its Fiscal Year 2021 budgetary red ink. But after that?

A top transportation reform lobbyist we spoke with today suggested another gas-tax increase to help cushion the blow. But will Beacon Hill want to go there again as the state tries to dig out from the worst economic collapse in memory?

Jon Keller

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