MBTA overnight bus service a tough sell
Absent financial help, project unlikely to proceed
The MBTA put off action this week on an overnight bus service pilot project, and a review of the underlying numbers suggests the initiative will have a hard time gaining traction without someone other than the T kicking in additional money.
The debate shows how difficult it is for the MBTA to expand operations in tight economic times without strong demand for the new service or a sugar daddy willing to put up money to make the project economical. The debate also shows how tricky it is to analyze demand and funding for a project that is only theoretical in nature.
The T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board has established a policy for evaluating pilot projects that expand service. The pilots must project ridership, revenue, and capital costs over the course of a year, and come up with a projected subsidy per trip that is comparable to the subsidy provided for a similar service currently offered by the T.
Using those criteria, the T approved pilot commuter rail service between South Station and Foxborough and early morning bus service between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. on 10 existing bus routes. A third pilot proposal, for bus service running from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. on routes between Revere and downtown and Mattapan and downtown was put on hold Monday because its projected subsidy of $27 per trip was nearly twice as high as a comparable service.
As the numbers show, the pilot doesn’t come close to meeting the T’s standards for moving ahead with a pilot project. The costs are too high given the low ridership and the minimal fares those riders would pay.
The Foxborough pilot faced similar financial challenges, but it overcame them through a combination of higher fares and outside financial help. MBTA presentations on the Foxborough pilot indicated it would cost $1.2 million to operate, offset by $324,000 in fare revenue and up to $352,000 provided by the Kraft Group, which owns Gillette Stadium. The net cost of $524,000, or $6.07 per passenger, equals the average subsidy per passenger provided by the MBTA for commuter rail.
Without the Kraft money, the T’s subsidy for the Foxborough service would have been more than $10 per trip. Kraft is providing 500 parking spaces for the Foxborough station and allowing the T to pocket the estimated $135,000 in annual revenue. Kraft has also agreed to kick in up to $217,000 more to bring the T’s costs down further.
In looking over the MBTA’s numbers for the proposed overnight bus service, some of the calculations seem suspect. For example, the T estimates the overnight bus service will generate 75,000 total trips, but only 37,500 of them will be new. It’s hard to see how a new service operating at a time when the T had previously not been running could attract riders who are currently using the T. For the Foxborough pilot, the T estimated the service would generate 86,400 trips, and all of them would be new.
The T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board didn’t pull the plug on the overnight bus pilot on Monday, but board members said the cost would have to come down if they were going to move forward. The three ideas they floated all relied on obtaining outside help. The suggestions included asking the Carmen’s Union, whose members operate the buses, for financial concessions; asking the Massachusetts Port Authority to operate the buses and assume the cost; or putting the service out to bid with a private vendor, an approach that attracted little interest when it was tried previously.Jim Aloisi, a former secretary of transportation who serves on the board of TransitMatters, which is pushing the overnight bus pilot along with the cities of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Revere, and Chelsea, said the group probably needs to work more closely with T staff to make sure the cost per rider is being calculated accurately.
“We’ve all got to take a closer look at the assumptions,” he said in a statement. “Ultimately, the cost of overnight service won’t be zero, and I don’t expect that transit equity advocates are going to be asked to compete with Bob Kraft when it comes to securing better transit services. Overnight service is compelling on its merits, and I’m confident that no one wants to give even the slightest impression that we’ve become a pay-to-play environment.”