How to pay for the MBTA? Get more cars off the road.

The MBTA is in a financial crunch. The recently convened MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board painted a “bleak picture” of the MBTA and its finances in September: it has a projected deficit of $242 million deficit in fiscal 2017. Costs of the Green Line Extension have ballooned by an extra billion dollars, seemingly without explanation.
In an effort to get the agency back on track, no option is off the table. Governor Baker has already proposed privatizing lesser-used bus routes, an unpopular move among the labor leaders (despite claims that no union jobs would be lost). It was proposed to increase parking costs at MBTA parking lots in order to close the operating budget deficit. And yesterday, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board floated the idea of raising fares as a solution to this crisis.
It is true, these solutions may help to close the operating budget deficit – assuming ridership is maintained at current levels. But with raising fares comes another problem: it decreases ridership because some may not be able to afford the cost of a ticket or monthly pass. In other cases where commuters drive to an MBTA lot, it may raise the cost of commuting to be equal to commuting by car, especially as gas prices hit record lows.
However, the proposal to raise fares is unsaleable and should not be considered as a serious approach to fixing the T. A recent Boston Globe article cited the cost of subsidizing the various modes of transit:

Mode Taxpayer Subsidy per Ride
Subway $0.61
Light Rail (Green Line) $1.39
Buses $2.86
Commuter Rail $5.75
The Ride $45.53

A few things stick out when looking at this table. First, The Ride seems to have a huge subsidy. But this is warranted given the nature of The Ride – it is paratransit service provides door-to door, shared-ride transportation to eligible people who cannot use fixed-route transit (bus, subway, trolley) all or some of the time because of a physical, cognitive or mental disability (according to the MBTA). It is bound to be more expensive.
The table below looks at the total cost of each ride by adding the fare the MBTA charges for someone with a CharlieCard to the reported subsidy:

Mode Fare per Ride Taxpayer Subsidy per Ride Total Cost per Ride Percent Paid by Rider
Subway $2.10 $0.61 $2.71 77.5%
Light Rail (Green Line) $2.10 $1.39 $3.49 60.2%
Buses $1.60 $2.86 $4.46 35.9%
Commuter Rail $2.10-$11.50 $5.75 $7.85-$17.25 26.8%-66.7%

The data show that subway riders pay for the greatest percent of their ride, meaning the fare is the closest to the actual cost per ride. The commuter rail has the greatest variability of cost paid for by the rider.
Note that bus riders pay for 36% of their bus ride. This stat has been the basis for further investigation by the Baker administration. The $2.86 subsidy as reported by the Globe is an average, meaning that it is subject to great variability. Outlier routes could pull that number either up or down. The Governor identified several low ridership routes, including night and express routes, that had a net subsidy of $3.51 per ride and cost $8.9 million annually (while they bring in only $1.9 million in revenue annually), according to the T in an article on WBUR.org.
The idea is that these routes, which cost the taxpayers a great amount of money, should be privatized so the private companies pay to operate the routes (assuming the same standard of service) and those subsidies can go toward bridging the T’s operating budget deficit. Governor Baker promises that no union jobs would be lost in this program, since those operators would simply be reassigned to routes warranting greater drivers, dispatchers, etc.
While this sounds like a great idea, it is assuming that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority exists in a vacuum. Yes, it is important to look for ways to make the agency more efficient by reforming it. But reform can only go so far. Transportation advocates tout the phrase “Reform AND revenue,” emphasizing the need for a dual-pronged approach to fixing the T.

But this talk of reform and revenue raises a question: why is the T solely responsible for closing its deficit? The fact is that there are not enough ways for the T to gain revenue without public subsidies. By its very nature it is intended to lose money. This is because it is a public good and ultimately benefits society. (Most) students do not pay to go to school. They attend a public school funded by property taxes because an educated populace is good for society as a whole (indeed, it can be argued that public schools are underfunded as well, but that is a topic worthy of another post and outside the scope of my expertise and research).

The fact of the matter is that the T cannot exist without taxpayer subsidies, and cannot rely on fare increases as a means to fix itself. The MBTA is not alone in this fact. Cars are highly subsidized, too. According to data from the US census, Massachusetts’ drivers only pay for 58.7% of the cost of driving on roads. The other 41.3% comes from – you guessed it – the government.

So, how do these numbers break down?

Revenue Type Amount Received by State (Millions)
Tolls & User Fees $467.9
Fuel Taxes $660.8
License Taxes $378.1
Total $1,506.8

This means Massachusetts collects $1,506.8 Million from user fees & user taxes. This is a very significant number. But Massachusetts spends a total of 2,564.8 Million on state-local roads. The state has to pony up an additional $1,058 Million to cover the total cost of roads.

In short, drivers only pay for 58.7% of the cost of driving.

Drivers use their cars in lieu of the T because it’s cheap to driver. They drive because it’s sometimes more reliable than the T. They drive because they don’t have access to the T, or because it’s faster than taking three buses.

But in this drivers cause many problems. Not only are they costly to the state to the tune of $1,506.8 Million, but they cause congestion and traffic. They cause pollution through tailpipe emissions.
Using Governor Baker’s logic, the state should raise taxes on drivers to cover the deficit of roads and infrastructure. However, the Governor actively campaigned for a ballot question that reduced the state’s ability to raise the gas tax in order to pay for roads and infrastructure. He has actively opposed raising any new taxes, noting that reform is the answer.

Why then, is it acceptable to raise MBTA fares but unthinkable to raise the gas tax? It seems like a problem of nomenclature. Would it be permissible to raise user fees? If the cost of driving were more accurately reflected in tolls, registration fees, and the cost of gasoline, then driving would be a less economical choice for many people. They might be forced to take the T. With an influx of T riders come higher revenues because there are more people paying fares.

Ultimately, the Governor, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, and the Commonwealth are interested in finding unique ways for the MBTA to fund itself. The MBTA is impaired from doing this on its own, and government agencies must collaborate to address this problem. The goal of increasing T revenues is achieved by having fewer drivers on the road and more riders on the T. Fares need not be raised.

Advertisements

If I Could Improve One Line

One Line

I was recently posed the question: If you could improve one line in the greater Boston area, which would you prioritize? This post is an attempt to answer that question using existing plans as well as my own imagination. MassDOT and the MBTA have drafted many plans for what they would like to see in Boston’s public transit, yet many remain plans and dreams until funding comes around. While time might be better spent brainstorming creative methods to raise money for infrastructure beyond highway repairs, it is good practice to go through a planning process if significant funds were every made available, be it through an increased gas tax, toll fees, or increased fares (all of which are half-solutions to the greater problem at hand). In the words of President Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

There are many approaches to this question. Do I think realistically and suggest an answer that could actually happen? Or do I take a risk and suggest something that isn’t even included in the MBTA’s long-term capital plan? My question is, why not both? There is an easy fix to the Silver Line, which I would suggest in order to provide more opportunities along the Washington Street corridor to spur business and create access to jobs. I argue that improvements on this line will spur innovative solutions to the entire transit network in the Boston region.

The story of the Silver Line is one of disappointment and compromise. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, it is the

Image from bostonstreetcars.com

Image from bostonstreetcars.com

replacement for the elevated orange line that once ran above ground from Chinatown through Dudley Square to Forest Hills until 1987. The Orange Line moved to the Southwest Corridor after Jamaica Plain activists prevented the construction of an expressway there. It resulted in a vacuum of transportation for those in the South End, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain who had relied on the elevated.

Despite being promised an “equal or better” replacement, residents were given what we have today: the Silver Line, which is a botched implementation of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), and must confuse the heck out of tourists. Originally the plan was to provide transportation to the developing Waterfront area with a cheap alternative to rail. The SL 4 and SL 5 were afterthoughts and a way to silence the criticism of local residents and elected officials. Although the Waterfront has dedicated tunnels and lanes (see Courthouse Station, which is the epitome of lavishness but completely underutilized – so much so that no one even pays to advertise there), the BRT along Washington Street is essentially a glorified articulated bus. It is plagued by delays because of traffic, on-board payment, and overcrowding.

My improvement would be upon SL 4 and SL 5. Signal priority was a simple fix that we have already seen on normal bus routes across the region and have seen on the Silver Line. Further improvements are possible that would be simple and could increase the efficiency and ridership to this once flourishing corridor. There are three simple suggestions that would improve this line: median stations to speed boarding processes, dedicated bus lines to ensure speed, and more frequent service to accommodate ridership increases.

Median Stations

Image from sfcta.org

Image from sfcta.org

These changes require alteration of Washington Street. It is already a wide street with dedicated bus lanes along some stretches. Constructing a concrete median would eliminate a lane of traffic or make traffic lanes smaller. However, it would be consistent with MassDOT’s goals for more complete streets, which embrace all modes of transportation. Roads are intended for use by more than just cars, and it is important for infrastructure improvements to reflect this, especially as fewer people are using cars. Median stations would allow fare gates so passengers could board through all doors rather than lining up at the front to pay their fare. This would result in quicker boarding. It would create “stations” rather than just shelters and bus stops, which might then include heaters, fare machines to reload CharlieCards, and sign displaying arrival information.

A potential problem would be the exit from median stations. Obviously pedestrian safety would be a main concern. Therefore, crosswalks would be installed and colored to differentiate themselves from the street. Lights would be synced with the arrival of Silver Line buses to reduce overcrowding on station platforms and so riders can cross the road with ease. This is already seen on the Green Line B-Branch at Griggs Street/Long Avenue, but rather than pressing a button pedestrians would be open to cross immediately upon disembarking. More station infrastructure could be built along the sidewalks to increase mobility within the system, such as bike racks, Hubway stations, and more seating.

Dedicated Bus Lanes

The next suggestions would be dedicated bus lanes. Although there are already bus lanes along stretches of SL 4 and SL 5, there is room for improvement. For example, bus lanes would be moved to the center to accommodate new median stations. They would include overhead electric power to reduce tailpipe emissions, much like the underground portions of the Waterfront Silver Line and 71, 72, 73 and 77A trolleybuses in Cambridge, Belmont, and Watertown. This right-of-way removes the buses from congestion and ensures on-time arrivals according to schedule.

Frequency

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

The last improvement would be more frequent service. Currently, peak service on SL 4 and SL 5 is every 10 and 7 minutes respectively and up to 20 minutes at non-peak hours. Meanwhile, rapid transit runs every 5-7 minutes during rush hour and up to 10 minutes at non-peak hours. Currently many commuters walk to the Orange Line to travel downtown. With a better Silver Line, they may opt for a shorter walk to the Silver Line, creating more rider demand. Improved reliability and efficiency would increase ridership along the Washington Street corridor, which means already crowded buses would become even more crowded. Larger buses do not seem feasible given large articulated buses already run on the Silver Line. Therefore, more frequent service would be necessary.

But the biggest question remains unanswered: of all the problems Boston faces in terms of transportation, why should we focus on fixing the one “line” that isn’t a train? The answer comes in terms of cost: Bus rapid transit is a cheaper alternative than rail. There are minimal infrastructure costs compared to laying down rail. Stations are much more minimal. Plus, they are much more flexible to shift with city travel patterns than rail. Whereas rail is a fixed route, BRT can change when the people within cities change habits. As development continues in Dudley Square and other portions of Boston outside downtown, the “travel from outside the city to the central business district” model of commuting will be outdated. It is important for transportation to reflect the needs of the people who use it, and BRT will allow for this.

Successful implementation along the Washington Street corridor will serve as a model for the rest of the city. The Silver Line Gateway to Chelsea and East Boston will become more a reality, as will improvements in neighborhoods currently without rapid transit. Effective transportation options will become available to provide unparalleled mobility and opportunity to all Boston residents. In an age where funding for transportation is scarce, it is important to make the most of every dollar. BRT is a cost-effective solution for moving mass amounts of people with minimal infrastructure costs and costs to the environment.

The SL 4 and SL 5 are the two lines I would improve if I could, and believe the process of improving BRT in the Boston region now will pay dividends later.

The destination of this train is: Closing

I’m a few days late to the party, so by now most Bostonians are aware of the Government Center station renovation project. For the

2014-03-21 16.39.04 HDR

An ominous warning for the next 2 years

next 2 years, the major downtown hub serving as transfer between the green and blue lines will be closed. In addition to complete redesign of the headhouse (a behemoth all-glass structure, which might stick out compared to the desolate City Hall Plaza it occupies), it will become ADA compliant (something it has needed for a very long time). While these renovations won’t fix the screeching noise that emanates from the rails, it’s bound to make the dreary Government Center Station a much more welcoming face to the City.

 

The closure is going to have some major implications for the City and its infrastructure, which I’d like to address in a somewhat logical order. I’d also like to provide some improvements to the entire system that can be made possible through this massive project.

The Story of the Blue Line

Ah, the blue line. One of the only ways for someone without a car to travel west from East Boston to Downtown, and vice versa, in less than an hour. It connects to the orange line at State, but will no longer be able to connect to the green line at Government Center. This means anyone desiring to go from Maverick Square to say, Allston, you’ll have to leave the system and reenter into a green line station once you’re downtown. Or, for anyone desiring to get from Orient Heights to Cambridge, you’re better off taking a cab, because you have to transfer from blue to orange to red if you don’t want to pay another fare. So take that into account when planning your trip.

Wait – that last scenario didn’t involve Government Center at all. Would its opening make the trip any easier? Let’s see: Blue line to Gov Center, green line to Park Street, transfer to red line toward Alewife. It seems like even if the station were open, it would still be a pain to transfer to the red line.

2014-03-21 16.33.19 HDR

The Blue Line calm before Rush Hour

This is exactly the problem: the blue line doesn’t live up to its potential. It has the newest, most reliable stock, and serves as the only form of rapid transit into Boston from the north shore. Unlike the Orangeand Green lines, which have stations separated by only a few blocks (Symphony/Mass Ave. and Ruggles/MFA), there is no substitute for the blue line.

 

Not only does the blue line not live up to it’s potential, but it also hinders easy access Boston beyond the downtown area for those in East Boston, Revere, and Lynn. There are a slew of reasons for these populations to want to go to Cambridge, Brookline, and Dorchester, including jobs, entertainment, and schools. However, they are deterred from these trips because it takes two transfers and a lot of time. I’ll harp on it again: it’s unfair.

A connection from the blue line to the red line seems natural. Bowdoin Station is set to close after the Gov Center renovations, so why not add to a few more tunnels under Cambridge St to connect the Blue Line at Charles/MGH? In a perfect world this would happen and eliminate a lot of injustices for Eastie, a neighborhood already feeling the neglect and isolation created from a mile-wide harbor.

Getting to the Airport: a Silver Lining

As a student I’ve experienced taking the T to Logan Airport quite a few times. It’s pretty flawless: transferring at Government Center to the Blue Line isn’t that bad, especially now that there are countdown clocks. My only complaint has been the shuttle bus that goes to the airport terminals once you’ve arrived to the Airport Station.

Not only is it obnoxious to have another transfer, but it’s relatively annoying how the first bus only goes to A and B, while the

A B-Line train screeches to a halt

a B-Line train screeches to a halt

second bus goes C and E. Does it really get that crowded for one bus to serve all four terminals? If so, wouldn’t it be easier to use an articulated (“double”) bus? I learned this difference the hard way after arriving to A when I needed to get to C. I guess it’s more a lesson to read signs and follow directions.

Regardless, I still have a problem with this shuttle bus situation. The station is called Airport, but it’s still quite a ways away. Additionally, it’s going to be quite a hassle to get on the green line, transfer to the orange just to ride it one stop in order to get on the blue line for the next two years. Maybe I should just suck it up? Or pay the $50 cab fare (Darn you Williams Tunnel toll!).

Luckily, the MBTA has a solution, and it’s called the silver line. Okay so it’s not really rapid transit, but I’m a firm believer that Bus

2014-03-21 16.32.29 HDR

Some of the last riders at the station

Rapid Transit (BRT) has a lot of potential in this city. The Silver Line is great: it takes you directly from South Station to the front door of each individual airport terminal. And even greater, it’s free from the airport back to South Station!

 

As a green line user, all I have to do is walk the Winter Street Concourse at Park St. to the Red Line, get on at South Station, and get dropped off at the front door. It’s the same amount of time as before, but you get to take the elusive silver line.

My theory goes as follows: the T should really advertise this route. Getting more people on the Silver Line gets them acclimated to riding a BRT bus. Once you break down the barrier, they’ll open up to the idea, which could lead to a lot of support for Bus Rapid Transit in the city. BRT is great because you don’t have to build any additional track, and it can be as effective as rail systems if implemented. The biggest reason the Silver Line wasn’t implemented to its fullest potential was because of public support (or lack thereof…). But the closure of Government Center could possibly open up the future of the silver line and more mobility within the city.

With this sort of support buses as rapid transit could become a reality and reach areas in desperate need of transportation options. Perhaps the Chelsea Silver Line Gateway and Urban Ring could become realities.

In Closing

At the end of the day, I don’t think the Government Center closing will be all that bad. If that’s the normal end of your trip, you’ll have a slightly longer walk to work or whatever your destination may be. It might include one more transfer, which is really only ten more minutes to your commute. Or, it might require taking a completely new line and experiencing a new form of travel. It’s a small cost that may eventually benefit Greater Boston communities – and who doesn’t like that?

2014-03-21 16.35.38 HDR

A love poem to Gov Center scrawled on the walls

As I paid my final respects to that old, grungy station on March 21, 2014 I noticed I wasn’t alone. There were others taking pictures. Others were exploring the station one last time. Someone even wrote a love poem on the walls. Government Center, you will surely be missed, but I think your newfound beauty and potential for the entire MBTA far outweigh your minor inconveniences. Until then, I guess I’ll settle for getting off at Park Street.