Savings estimates from commuter rail cuts vary a lot
Halting weekend service would save between $7m and $18m
THE INABILITY OF MBTA OFFICIALS to say definitively how many passengers ride commuter rail on weekends is making it difficult to push for elimination of the service.
The T last week said it was considering eliminating the weekend service to save $10 million as part of a budget-balancing package for the coming fiscal year, but that estimate was $8 million below a projection of cost savings from less than two years ago.
T officials acknowledge they don’t have a good handle on how many people ride commuter trains on weekends, and are taking steps to improve their information on passenger traffic.
In November 2015, the T released two reports within weeks of each other that gave very different estimates on potential savings from eliminating weekend service. The first report, on Nov. 18, said commuter rail provides an average of 40,000 trips on weekends – 23,000 on Saturdays and 17,000 on Sundays. The report said the weekend subsidy was $23.52 per trip. It also said the total net cost of weekend commuter rail operations was $51 million and the net marginal cost was $18 million. The net marginal cost is the amount that could be saved by discontinuing service.
Then last week, when T officials recommended eliminating the weekend service, they estimated they could save $10 million by discontinuing the service and said the operating subsidy per trip on weekends was $34, compared to just $5 on weekdays.
Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s chief administrator, said he couldn’t immediately reconcile the different savings estimates, but a spokesman for the agency noted the current $10 million estimate is roughly midway between the $7 million to $14.4 million savings range outlined in the Nov. 30, 2015, presentation.The MBTA currently relies on conductors to estimate how many people are riding on trains. That effort is imprecise, so in 2015 an accounting firm was hired to conduct a more thorough analysis. T officials are now rushing to gather more information. They are spending $300, 000 to equip 11 passenger coaches with new technology to count passengers as they board. The passenger-counting system is expected to go live by the end of the month.
The T has also given Keolis, the commuter rail operator, the green light to launch a five-year campaign to cut down on fare evasion and increase ridership. The $9 million-a-year cost will be paid by Keolis, which will be reimbursed from increased fare revenue if the program works. By installing fare gates at South, North, and Back Bay stations as well as other measures, T officials estimate fare revenue may increase by $30 million — $20 to $24 million from reducing fare evasion and $6 million through boosting ridership. It’s unclear how those estimates were derived, since estimating fare evasion would presumably be even more difficult than estimating riders.