State trying to rein in RTAs
Memos suggest MassDOT is taking gentle approach
THE MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION is trying to rein in the state’s 15 regional transit authorities, the agencies that run buses outside the MBTA service area.
MassDOT recently signed a memorandum of understanding with each authority, laying out baseline figures for a variety of performance and financial metrics, and setting targets in each category for the next two years. The memos are a baby step toward a more uniform system of operation, a way for the state to begin evaluating its sizeable investment of $87 million in operating funds plus $3.5 million in discretionary grants.
“Like any other stakeholder, we want to see what we are getting for our money,” said Astrid Glynn, the administrator of MassDOT’s rail and transit division, who signed each memorandum of understanding.
What the memos show is that the regional transit authorities as a group have a pretty high level of on-time performance, as they define it. But the authorities are heavily reliant on state funding and are just beginning to think about developing new sources of revenue and tapping their customers for higher fares. There is also little uniformity from one authority to the next on hours of service, level of ridership, and a host of additional metrics.
At a recent MassDOT board meeting, Glynn noted some in Worcester have suggested dispensing with fares all together, in part because they make up such a small part of the authority’s revenues (16.5 percent, according to its memo). “We have had discussions with Worcester about the underpinnings of their logic,” Glynn told the MassDOT board.
In a gentle nudge, each memorandum with a regional transit authority contains a provision calling on the agency to adopt a fare policy by December 1, 2020, “that includes regular and recurring fare reviews and consideration of periodic modest fare adjustments.”
The average on-time performance of the regional transit authorities is 86 percent, with the lowest being 67 percent on Cape Cod and the highest 100 percent on Cape Ann. Glynn says the way the authorities measure on-time performance isn’t very sophisticated. They deem a bus on-time if it leaves its storage facility or begins its route on time.
Glynn is encouraging the authorities to gravitate toward the MBTA’s approach, which measures on-time performance by tracking arrival times all along the route. T buses are typically on time 67 percent of the time; the T’s goal is to have buses be on-time 80 percent of the time on key routes and 75 percent of the time on lesser priority routes.
In her negotiations with the regional transit authorities, Glynn said a number of them projected ridership losses over the next couple years. “We were quite insistent that one of the things we expected to see was an increase in ridership unless there’s a very specific and distinct reason why a temporary decrease might be expected,” she said.
The memos indicated only one authority, Berkshire, is forecasting that ridership will fall this fiscal year by 21,039 riders before bouncing back to previous levels in fiscal 2021. Berkshire’s farebox recovery ratio is expected to follow a similar path, falling to 11.39 percent this fiscal year. Glynn said Berkshire’s numbers suffered because of an employee strike in late 2018.
Sullivan said the regional transit authorities, like the MBTA, should be raising fares a modest amount periodically. “There needs to be a certain minimum standard. Otherwise, these systems are not going to be sustainable in the long term,” Sullivan said. “Look, we shouldn’t be operating with a cookie cutter, but we should have a template.”