T ridership: Flat or flying high?

T, Frontier Group have different takes; Red Line up

NO ONE CAN SEEM TO AGREE whether the glass is half full or half empty when it comes to MBTA ridership.

In its annual report, the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board described ridership as flat over the last 15 years while operating expenses were galloping upward at a rate of 5 percent per year. A graph accompanying the report certainly made it look like the number of riders had remained steady between 2000 and 2015, although the actual increase over the 15-year period was about 11 percent.

The Frontier Group offers a very different take. Tony Dutzik of the nonprofit research group said transit ridership in the Boston area grew at a rate of nearly 11 percent over the six-year period between 2008 and 2014, a faster rate of growth than any of the nation’s other top 10 transit cities. “In absolute terms, Boston saw the addition of nearly 43 million transit trips during the period, second only to New York,” Dutzik wrote in a blog post.

The discrepancy between the numbers used by the T and the Frontier Group can be traced partly to the time periods being reviewed and partly to the numbers being analyzed. It gets complicated quickly.

Dutzik’s numbers come from the National Transit Database and include riders from a handful of regional transit authorities outside the MBTA service area. Dutzik said he included data from the regional transit authorities in his Boston numbers to offer a more complete picture of the entire metro area and to allow better comparisons to other metro areas around the country.

After removing the non-MBTA riders, the number of passenger trips at the T increased 10.4 percent (instead of 11 percent) between 2008 and 2014, an average annual growth rate of 1.7 percent.

Joe Pesaturo, the T’s spokesman, said the Fiscal Management and Control Board used the same information from the National Transit Database, but for the period from 2000 to 2015. Over that period, ridership grew a total of 11 percent, or an average of 0.8 percent annually, he said.

“It seems fair to characterize less than 1 percent average annual growth as flat,” Pesaturo said. “It essentially comes down to different starting years.”

Pesaturo said the accuracy of ridership counts increased dramatically starting in 2008 due to a number of technology changes at the transit authority, suggesting the more recent numbers are more reliable. Still, he said, the agency doesn’t just rely on the National Transit Database figures, but tweaks them.

Using numbers provided by Pesaturo, the number of passenger trips increased 7 percent between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2014, an average annual increase of 1.1 percent. Including estimated passenger trips from fiscal 2015, when ridership dropped during the T’s winter meltdown, the increase comes to 6.1 percent, an average annual increase of 0.86 percent.

Even using the T’s revised numbers, Dutzik said, the “rate of increase would result in Boston being competitive with New York and Seattle for the fastest growing ridership over that time period among the 10 major transit cities we reviewed.”

As the T and the Frontier Group debated passenger trip data, T officials told the agency’s oversight board on Monday that ridership on the Red Line was growing rapidly. According to the presentation, ridership on weekdays grew 2 percent annually between 2008 and 2015, and even faster on Saturdays (2.5 percent annually) and Sundays (2.8 percent annually).

Exact numbers were not provided, but a graph of the Red Line’s ridership trends between 2008 and 2015 indicated weekday passenger traffic grew about 10 to 11 percent over the 2008-2015 time period.

In other action:

–The Fiscal Management and Control Board on Monday voted unanimously to spend up to $6 million on three consultants assigned the task of redesigning the Green Line extension to reduce costs from $3 billion to about $2 billion.

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.

–T officials said only 55 people attended three MBTA meetings on the transit agency’s proposal to eliminate late-night service. Of the 55 attendees, 35 spoke against the plan, T officials sai