What we should focus on in the rail debate

Keys are congestion reduction, last-mile links, low or no fares

A correction has been added to this story.

Congestion at rush hour:  That is the problem we should be trying to solve as we contemplate alternative rail and transit expansion programs.  At rush hour, rail and transit already carry a significant share of traffic and can likely capture a greater share, reducing congestion for those who continue to drive.

I have previously made the argument that the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board should be seeking to “maximize the ridership returns on investment over the next 10 years” as it compares options.  I am suggesting that the focus be even sharper. The board should be seeking to maximize rush hour ridership as opposed to ridership in general.

In practice, most ridership occurs at rush hour, so the end result is not necessarily different.  However, the process of analysis is different.  The MBTA should be asking broadly how to increase rush hour ridership with recognition that the solution may not require transit investment per se, but actually may involve more parking or other last mile solutions.  The MBTA should be looking bottom up at the ridership of each of its lines and asking what the actual constraints at rush hour are.

The only higher priority question is how to provide reliable service to the passengers we already serve. To its credit, the MBTA has placed a great emphasis on state of good repair and I defer to the operators of the system as to how to achieve that goal.

Taking the reliability program as a given, I am suggesting a singular focus on the question of rush hour ridership. Currently, the discussion about options is confused by simultaneous consideration of secondary goals.

Certainly, transportation investments can and do serve multiple fundamental goals other than reducing congestion at rush hour – equity, housing affordability, economic development, greenhouse gas reduction. However, there are more cost-effective and direct ways to achieve each of these goals. The link between transportation per se and actual achievement of these goals is speculative and dependent on many other things going right.

Let’s take these secondary goals one by one.  As to equity, the principal barrier to low-income use of public transit is not lack of service to low-income areas. Especially for commuter rail, the issue is fares. Both the subway and the commuter rail serve many lower income communities, but the fares, running up to $13.25 per one-way ride, deter low-income riders. If we want more low-income riders to be able to commute on rail, step one is to cut fares.  I support increasing funding to the MBTA and the RTAs for the specific purpose of reducing fares for low-income riders.

Similarly, as to connecting affordable housing in Gateway Cities such as Worcester and Lowell to Boston jobs, the issue is again fares, not lack of service. These cities are both reasonably well served, but only 6.8 percent of the ridership of commuter rail is low income (see Table 7 of the most recent fare increase analysis) and the obvious barrier is fares.

As to economic development goals, I am among those drawn to the possibility of supporting job growth in Gateway Cities by providing frequent all-day service, in other words, true regional rail. There is nothing wrong with this idea, but we have to recognize that it depends on sustained economic development leadership in each of those cities. A lot of things have to go right if Worcester is to become a connected satellite of Kendall Square. In other words, economic development is always speculative and we should reach for lower-hanging fruit –  that is, congestion reduction — before turning to economic development goals.

Finally, as to greenhouse gas reduction, we need to bear in mind that public transportation accounts for only a tiny fraction of statewide 24/7 traffic. While it is important downtown at rush hour, it accounts for less than 5 percent of all passenger-miles traveled.  Even with an unprecedented doubling of transit ridership over the next couple of decades, 90 percent of travelers would still be burning fossil fuels on the roads. Our environmental priority has to be electrification of the private vehicle fleet. Fortunately, progress on that front is actually much cheaper than electrifying and expanding public transit. (See, for example, Carbon Free Boston, page 65, Figure 29.)

In summary, the public is crying out for congestion reduction at rush hour and public transportation can respond to that call. It is time for the deliberations about rail service expansion to zero-in on the one challenge that rail is most likely to be able to meet.

In November, the MBTA Board considered next steps on rail investment. While endorsing the need to evaluate ridership return on investment, the board voted the following further resolution: the MBTA shall first implement EMU powered service along the Providence/Stoughton line, the Fairmont line and the line from Boston to Everett to Chelsea to Revere to Lynn. (This was the second-voted resolution of the MBTA Board from its meeting of November 4.)

From the rush hour congestion perspective, investment in the Providence/Stoughton line and the Boston to Lynn segment may make very good sense. However, it is entirely unclear whether electrification with use of EMUs is the most direct path to reduced congestion. Parking and fare policies may be much more important.

I have heard the argument made informally that electrification of the Providence Line could allow quicker service and more trips at rush hour using the same number of trains, but that argument has not been made by MassDOT staff. On the contrary, one of the main inferences from the rail vision study is that electrification has limited benefits for ridership. Regardless, it is likely that parking expansion and level boarding at stations are also necessary to achieve any ridership benefits from electrification. On the other hand, parking expansion might be enough to provide substantial benefits without electrification.

On the Lynn-to-Boston segment, the congestion needs are real as anywhere else, but again what is the most direct route to meeting those needs? Giving Lynn zone 1A status and adding a couple of more trains stopping there might be enough to make a big difference and could happen much faster than electrification. Electrification of any line terminating at North Station raises much greater investment needs than electrification of a line into South Station which is already electrified.

Correction: The original version of this post included the paragraph below, in which I speculate on the cost-effectiveness of electrifying of the Fairmount line. That comment was inadequately considered. Right or wrong, the comment was based on partial data including a poor choice of metric (boardings/trip). I leave the paragraph in italics below as an unfortunate example of the kind of casual, lightly-informed, intuitive thinking that we need to get away from in the transportation conversation. The whole thrust of this piece is that we need much more rigorous analysis of ridership potential of proposed investments and the comment was a bad example and a distraction.

Finally, as to the Fairmount line, it is by far the lowest ridership-per-train line in the system. It already has clockface service more generous than that on many other lines, yet has failed to attract ridership. This is probably because it lacks both parking and surrounding density. It seems an unlikely priority for electrification. The Fairmount line competes with relatively close subways. The next step for the Fairmount line should be fare linkage, allowing passengers to board the Fairmount line and not pay again to board the subway. The easiest way to do that before the long-delayed new fare system arrives would be to make the Fairmount line free. If that brings more ridership to the Fairmount line, then we can consider investing more to expand service.

[I do stand by the following:] If the board believes that the huge investment necessitated by electrification is justified from a basic service reliability perspective, then Resolution #2 may be a reasonable pathway. But the case for Resolution #2 just has not been adequately made.

Meet the Author

William Brownsberger

Senator, Massachusetts Senate

William Brownsberger is the state senator from Belmont.