T notes: Ridership, even at peak times on Red Line, continues to decline

Paratransit costs are going up, not down

MBTA RIDERSHIP is continuing to decline, even on the Red Line at peak travel times.

T officials for a couple years have been trying to understand why ridership is trending down at a time when the Greater Boston economy is booming. One promising sign during the downturn has been data indicating ridership was up on the subway lines at peak travel times, reinforcing the view that public transit does best in attracting passengers when it has a dedicated right of way during periods when congestion is high or alternative modes of travel are more expensive.

But the latest data suggest ridership on the workhorse Red and Orange Lines is also down now at peak times. Using a ridership index with a starting point of January 2014, Red Line ridership at peak travel times was up for 4 ½ years before dipping into negative territory in June. As of September, Red Line ridership was down 0.6 percent relative to the starting point in 2014. Orange Line ridership at peak travel times dipped into negative territory in late 2016 and was down 2.4 percent in September.

The one exception to this trend was the Blue Line, where peak ridership has been on the rise since early 2016 and was up 18.1 percent as of September.

Using the same index, bus ridership at peak periods was off 7.9 percent.

Comparing the July through September period this year to the same period last year, weekday ridership was down on the subway (1.6 percent) and bus system (1.8 percent). On weekends, ridership losses were greater, generally in the 2 to 3 percent range, although bus ridership on Saturdays was down only 0.5 percent.

Officials said the ridership decline overall seems to be moderating compared to the past several years. They also say the decline is in line with what other transit agencies are experiencing around the country.

The ridership data used in Monday’s report to the Fiscal and Management Control Board was based on taps at fare boxes and fare gates and does not capture all riders. T fare technology is fairly primitive right now and it’s often difficult to accurately gauge how many people are riding the system at any given time. Laurel Paget-Seekins, director of strategic initiatives at the T, said her office is doing an in-depth analysis of ridership trends looking at 27 transit authorities across the country with a closer look at Seattle, Los Angeles, and Boston.

T budget officials, in a separate presentation to the Fiscal and Management Control Board, said fare revenue from the subway system was down $2.4 million in the July-September quarter and down $1.8 million on the bus system. Overall, fare revenue was down $3.4 million in the quarter, suggesting losses on the transit side were offset partly by gains in commuter rail revenue.  Commuter rail ridership appears to be increasing, but reliable passenger counts are not available yet.

Paratransit costs keep rising

A painful restructuring of the T’s paratransit service was supposed to reduce costs, but so far this year spending is on the rise and officials say the budget will probably not go down until a new software system is rolled out next year and fully installed in 2020.

Ben Schutzman, who oversees the T’s paratransit service, told the Fiscal and Management Control Board that service has improved by most measures, including on-time performance and missed trips. But he said costs have also risen, as much as $2.5 million in the July-through-September period.

“Costs should be going down, not going up,” said Brian Shortsleeve, a director of the control board.

But Schutzman had cautioned last year that costs were not likely to go down in the current fiscal year. The T hired Transdev to run its centralized call and dispatch center for paratransit in April, replacing a company called Global Contract Services that had been hired in 2016 with the expectation it would improve service and cut costs $12 million annually. The T concluded in 2017 that Global was doing neither and decided to hire a new vendor.

According to Schutzman, the number of one-way passenger trips provided by the T’s paratransit service was up nearly 7 percent between October 2017 and October 2018. Fifteen thousand trips, or 9 percent of the total, were handled by Uber and Lyft. Each ride provided by the two ride-hailing apps costs the T $17 while each ride provided by the T’s own vendors costs $45 to $46.

Schutzman said the popular ride-hailing apps are attracting more customers to the paratransit service, but the cost impact is largely a wash. He estimated a third of the trips handled by the ride-hailing apps would have shifted to the T’s own more expensive vendors if the apps had not been available.

Schutzman said labor and other costs keep rising. He said the key to reducing costs for the paratransit service will be increasing productivity – using existing drivers and equipment to carry more passengers.  He said new, more sophisticated software should help do that. The T expects to hire a software vendor at the end of January and roll out the service partially in 2019 and completely in 2020.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Who do you want to oversee the T?

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, on Monday invited the public to visit the board’s website to provide ideas on how the MBTA should be governed in the future. The control board’s mandate expires in 1.5 years, and members of the board want to recommend to the Legislature later this year how they think oversight should be handled once their five-year term expires. Get those comments in, because the board is planning to discuss what approach it intends to take at its December 10 meeting. (As of last night, the control board website didn’t have a place to leave comments.)