MBTA in crisis again

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    MBTA in crisis again

    Once again, MBTA is in financial crisis. Its subway, bus and trolley users are being threatened with service cutbacks because MBTA has failed to adjust its expenses for changes in ridership and has mismanaged costs of the subsidized taxi service ("The Ride").

    Federal information on U.S. transit systems has been collected since 1979. Data from 1991 through 2010 are now readily available to the public. They are used in the following review. [ National Transit Database, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2011, at http://www.ntdprogram.gov/ntdprogram/data.htm ]

    While the Cellucci administration did palm off onto MBTA about $3 billion in state debt for Big Dig highway projects, MBTA reports show only about $70 million per year attributable to it. It is not a new phenomenon and does not account for the current crisis. Instead, what happened to MBTA is about nine years of financial mismanagement, allowing costs to rise when ridership was stagnant or in decline.

    System-wide ridership flattened after 2000, then entered gradual decline after 2005. Except for the heavily subsidized taxi service, all MBTA riderships have declined. That began well before the 2008 recession. MBTA management failed to reduce costs in the face of reduced demand for services.

    From 2000 through 2010, there was relatively steady growth in subway, bus, trolley and ferry costs. In contrast, there were waves of cost increases for commuter rail around 2000, 2004 and 2009, and there have been surges of increases in taxi costs. Here are trips per year in millions, for 2010, peak ridership years, percentage drops in ridership from the peaks, at 2010, and costs per trip in 2010, for each type of service:

    Service     Trips    Peak  Drop  Cost/trip
    Subway    139.0   2002   14%     $2.20
    Bus          108.1   2005   20%     $3.13
    Trolley        68.6   2006   19%     $2.30
    Com.rail     36.9    2003     9%     $7.59
    Taxi             2.1    2010   N/A    $41.65
    Ferry           1.3    2003   12%     $7.66

    One useful way to look at MBTA costs is to adjust them for inflation, done here with the national Consumer Price Index and showing trends in MBTA cost per trip, over the years, in 2010 dollars. A decline in bus ridership between 2005 and 2006, occurring before 2007 fare increases, strongly affected bus cost/trip.

    Since the 1940s, MBTA has underpriced bus service. It costs more per trip to provide than subway and trolley service. Since the last fare increases at the start of 2007, the following fare increases, derived from percentages by service, not current cost/trip, would approximately match increases in MBTA operating costs:

    Service                           Increase
    Subway and trolley      $1.70 to $2.35
    Bus                            $1.50 to $2.35
    Commuter rail                   30%
    Taxi                                  N/A
    Ferry                                15%

    Except for the subsidized taxi service, the strongest effects on inflation-adjusted costs come from changes in ridership. Nearly half the increases needed to balance MBTA finances come from spreading costs among fewer riders. Part comes from using subway, bus, trolley and commuter rail fares to subsidize taxi service. MBTA is currently charging taxi riders less than five percent of the cost of service.

  2. You have chosen to ignore posts from Firewind. Show Firewind's posts

    Re: MBTA in crisis again

    Thanks again to the OPs for bringing this discussion to the fore in the two current threads.

    Again, to try to address one fundamental part of this discussion in a constructive voice:  The MBTA has got to commission a study to credibly estimate the number of riders who do not pay to ride the Green Line.  I am a frequent, though not regular, rider, and I would unskillfully estimate that the number approaches 40% at the surface stops.  Everyone can see it.  Today and historically, when the media turns up the heat, the "T" puts enforcers at the stops until the klieg lights - figuratively speaking - move on.

    This will characterize the apparently huge problem in order to try to accurately address it.  There are probably patterns disguised in what we can see.  For example, segment it by age cohort. day, time of day, season, schools in/out, even recession vs. non-recessionary times.  The numbers will be embarrassing to painful, perhaps even stunning and humiliating, but it needs to be done.  At least then decisionmakers and the public would know.  Or know how much is knowable.  If the latter answer is, "Not very much at all", well, that in itself would be hugely informative -- e.g., at least that the blame games to date have been looking in the wrong places.

    It's very possible that the numbers become the story, and become more significant than those cited above in driving public policy.  Then propose and debate solutions.
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    Mismanagement is the main problem

    MBTA fare-scoffers are indeed a problem, but financially they have less impact than rampant mismanagement of the subsidized taxi service ("The Ride"). The total inbound Green Line fares due from the B.U. segment, where scoffing is rampant, amount to less than 2 percent of MBTA revenues, and only a fraction are lost.

    When investigating major crimes, look for major culprits. At MBTA, the 800-pound gorilla was skyrocketing operating costs in the face of falling ridership. For their entire durations, the Patrick and former Romney administrations have been equal-opportunity offenders.

    Well-known and effective management in the face of changing demand uses schedule adjustment. When demand slackens, stretch the schedules. Trains and buses get a little less frequent. Excess staff go on furlough or are laid off, to be recalled as attrition creates vacancies or business picks up.

    Long-term, the key problem with MBTA is a system built on a totally antiquated, nineteenth-century model of ridership. Unlike New York City, Boston does not dominate its metropolitan area, but the management of MBTA and its sometimes unthinking fans continue to behave as though it did.

    In the 1920s, business surged in Boston's inner suburbs, but Boston Elevated Railway did not respond with improved service. Expansion to middle suburbs took off in the 1950s with completion of Route 128, but MTA did not respond. In the 1970s it began to move into far suburbs served by I-495, but MBTA was fast asleep.

    For the past 20 years, MBTA has been reviving nineteenth-century, short-line railroads. Most of them do not go where people need to go. They have dozens and dozens of dangerous, grade-level crossings, and they are lucky to average 25 or 30 miles an hour.

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    Re: MBTA in crisis again

    I agree with all of the above post, except for the heart of the first paragraph.  The figure is unknown and presently unknowable, even with deviation around it.  And that's not to say that the B Line is even representative.

    And I resoundingly agree with the last paragraph, and hopefully without being laughed off the board one more time, suggest that the most glaring absence is the lack of a perimeter public transportation line -- say, along 128.  OK, laugh me off, but I'd say that it's needed, as reflected in (and could be proven cost-effective vs.) the gazillions of dollars that have been wasted in commute hour time, petrol and wear and tear along The Corridor.

    But I acknowledge that I have nothing to base this on.
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    Fare-scoffers of hither, thither and yore

    Could fare-scoffing really be a local or recently invented sport? Hardly likely. Personal witness knows it as a minor scandal from the 1960s at Central Square, Cambridge, on the Red Line, and at the now-demolished Dudley Square, Roxbury, on the former elevated Orange Line. There were scattered news reports at the time, but they remain buried for the present in dusty archives from the Age of Paper.

    In those settings, the favored modus operandi was the spectacular, twisting flying leap over the turnstiles, an acrobatic display surely intended as much to impress the bystanders as to cheat the MTA out of a 20-cent token and mainly the pastime of urchins, not college students. The hard-hearted MTA response was to install steel grids above unguarded railings and substitute full-height turngates for low-rise turnstiles, to some extent inviting more devious but less dramatic stunts.

    TransLink of Vancouver, BC, which has run on a farebox "honour system." estimates losses at 2.5 percent of revenue, mostly from student-age fare-scoffers, and like the Boston-area MTA of yesteryear, it is now busy installing full-height turngates. [ Independent audit confirms fare evasion estimate, TransLink, 2008, at http://www.translink.ca/en/About-Us/Media/2008/July/Independent-audit-confirms-fare-evasion-estimate-Evasion-rate-and-revenue-loss-lower.aspx ]

    London Rail reports fare evasion rates somewhat improved in recent years, dropping on the U from an audited 3.8 percent for 2004 to 2.4 percent for 2010. [ See p. 163, Written answers to questions, London Assembly, June 15, 2011, at http://www.london.gov.uk/moderngov/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=4780&T=9 ]

    Ronald Clarke, Stephane Contre and Gohar Petrossian of Rutgers compared effectiveness of evasion controls employed on buses and light rail in Edmonton, Canada, from 2007 through 2009, finding "no clear trends were apparent in weekly evasion rates during the entire period." [ Deterrence and fare evasion, Security Journal 23:5-17, 2010, abstract at http://www.palgrave-journals.com/sj/journal/v23/n1/abs/sj200915a.html ]

    While we lack similar trends from MBTA, it appears highly unlikely for some recent growth in fare-scoffing to account for more than a tiny fraction of a major financial crisis.

  6. You have chosen to ignore posts from Firewind. Show Firewind's posts

    Re: MBTA in crisis again

    No, not a local or recently invented sport.  Personal witness sees that it varies geographically.  In Paris, it's the bound with flourish, as described above (Metro; RER is full-body).  In the Boston surface Green Line area, it's stepping onboard deftly, no flourish, deafly facing to the rear.  In Italian cities, it's a more drawn out and elaborate game, because trams are patrolled by undercover enforcers.  In the nordic cities, it's stepping onboard carefree.  I don't know, but would suspect, that Canadians are among the least likely testers.  I gladly accept the study results from the study's sample in Edmonton for Edmonton. 

    Each a version of the honor system, which will exist in a condition of unenforceability, an expression of the social culture.  But all share one thing:  The scofflaw exists where there's an honor system, official and de facto.  There are higher forms in other contexts, and good, accurate economics accounts for them.  The better the data and estimating technique, the better the real economics are known, the better the public policy.  Public policy needs to address real problems.

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    Keeping the eye on the ball

    Well, all in good sport, but there's still the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and it's not the fare-scoffer. It's the management! During Weld's era, MBTA costs went up and down when ridership went up and down.  Most likely MBTA unions hated it, but Weld's administration did not owe them the time of day.

    Like the other big East Coast transit systems, MBTA ridership took a bad hit from the 1991 recession, then it grew again after the mid-1990s. At that point, management discipline evaporated. After 2002, things began to fall apart. Ridership flattened out, but management allowed costs to continue soaring.

    Then, after 2005, ridership fell into decline, but management continued to let costs soar. It's easy to do that. No positions cut, wage and salary hikes, nobody laid off, nobody on furlough. Everybody happy. Nothing like that can go on for long.

    Pockets of resources started to drain, and finally they are empty. Full crisis is here. If transit is going to work for us, it has to be transit we can afford to use and transit we can afford to run. Bad management is our enemy.

    MBTA needs a system-wide, politically independent audit. It is long overdue for a thorough house-cleaning.

  8. You have chosen to ignore posts from Firewind. Show Firewind's posts

    Re: MBTA in crisis again

    All the above notwithstanding, we are mostly on the same page, in particular arguing for good management.

    But when the MBTA GM gets promoted to Secretary of Transportation, what are ya gonna do...
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    Re: MBTA in crisis again

    Now, all these months later, we learn that they're "about a $100 million" off.  But don't worry, they say, it's not theft.  "Rest assured, your money goes to the money room and to the bank."  "Maybe it's just a glitch."  OK, maybe.  So, the investigation into malfeasance or misfeasance can be the next step. 

    Because, at the moment, and to my ongoing point:  They.have.no.idea.  They have to get their house in order before any other discussions or arguments are grounded.

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    Re: MBTA in crisis again

    And one can't help guessing that this news (and the audit?) is timed -- well after the fare hike and reduced routes cycle has faded, and well after a rising star is promoted from MBTA head to cabinet secretary.

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    Re: MBTA in crisis again

    In response to GreginMeffa's comment:

    Well, I've been all over, and I'd say Washington DC is our nations best transit system.


    The further you go, the more it costs.  I can ride to anywhere (except 2 stops on the Red Line) for 2 bucks, including bus transfer.

    That is CHEAP!

    I would have to agree about DC...and I think most would.  The US system of mass transit is abysmal when compared to that in countries such as England and Germany. I think everyone can probably figure out that public transit is simply not a priority in this country and the reasons why.

  13. You have chosen to ignore posts from Firewind. Show Firewind's posts

    Re: MBTA in crisis again

    Agree with both of you.  The best deal still is here.  And the DC Metro still seems like the future.

    Back here to add that, since I've become a frequent bus rider, I've noticed a repeated phenomenon:

    Bus drivers waving passengers onboard.  And I'm probably speaking before thinking whether I really should say this here: White drivers waving on white passengers and black drivers waving on black passengers.  I would say that in my opinion, it's one thing to see them wave on a person of diminished capacity in one way or another.  I feel for them.  I may regret saying this (everything I've said in this thread, actually) but I've now seen it many times.  All goes to my earlier point:  They.have.no.idea.

  14. You have chosen to ignore posts from Firewind. Show Firewind's posts

    Re: MBTA in crisis again

    Bringing it further down to ground level...

    I just remembered a conversation I had with a "T" inspector a few weeks ago.  He'd just finished working some kind of false alarm situation on the (inner) Green Line.  I brought up the scofflaw issue.  I said I'd seen guys in white shirts like him screening riders at Longwood, Coolidge and along Beacon, but only soon after the TV news had brought it up.  It seemed to me that that second "driver" on a two-car might be encouraged by management to tighten it up at the surface stations; maybe even add it to their job description.  He looked conscientious, so I didn't expect his answer.  He said that the conductors get in more trouble when they confront or report people who don't pay than they do for almost anything except talking on cell phones, because the passenger will make up something else about that driver, and report it, and then they're in a world of hurt.