As Gov. Baker’s special panel on the MBTA prepares to release its recommendations for the future of transit in the Boston area, it is important that its conclusions be based on accurate information. Writing in CommonWealth yesterday, former state Transportation Secretary James Aloisi raised important questions about the statistics in a leaked version of the panel’s draft report.
According to the Globe’s David Scharfenberg:
The report, in its latest iteration, is a slide presentation in silver and blue, filled with bullet points and charts on all manner of subjects. One reviewed by the Globe showed passenger fares cover a relatively small share of the MBTA’s operating expenses — 39 percent — compared with cities such as Chicago (44 percent), San Francisco (76 percent), and London (90 percent for its subway system alone).
In his piece for CommonWealth, Aloisi found that those numbers “don’t stand scrutiny.” He points to an issue that we’ve discussed at length: the difficulty of developing accurate comparisons between the MBTA – which offers a complete menu of public transportation services on both the regional and local scale – and transit agencies that offer only some of those services.
The most accurate way to compare the MBTA’s “farebox recovery ratio” – the percentage of operating expenses that are covered by passenger fares – with those of other agencies is to compare those figures on a mode-by-mode basis. In other words, we should compare the ratio for bus vs. bus, train vs. train, etc. We’ve used 2013 data from the National Transit Database to do so, and will present the results below.
Before we do, though, it is important to understand why the MBTA’s farebox recovery ratio matters – and why it doesn’t. Simply put, farebox recovery measures the share of the cost of a service that is paid for by those who use it. If more of an agency’s operating cost is covered by riders, taxpayers need to spend less to keep the service running. All other things being equal, that’s a good thing.
But there are many times when it makes sense to spend more, rather than less, to subsidize transit service. If transit subsidies can address a transportation need at lower public expense than the available alternatives (e.g., adding another lane to the Big Dig), if they can deliver public benefits that exceed the costs (e.g., reducing air pollution or curbing congestion), or if they can meet a pressing and vital societal need (e.g., providing mobility to the disabled), a low farebox recovery ratio may be perfectly acceptable.
Now back to the data. The chart below compares the farebox recovery performance of the MBTA with the national average for each mode of transit, according to 2013 data from the National Transit Database.
Figure 1. Farebox Recovery Ratios: MBTA vs. National Average, by Mode
Two things stand out about the data:
All of this points to two arguments we’ve made repeatedly, in this space and elsewhere:
As Gov. Baker and the Legislature prepare to make important decisions about the future of the MBTA, it is critical that the information they use be accurate and presented in a context in which its implications can be fully appreciated. Let’s hope that the special panel’s final report fulfills that promise.
 For this chart, farebox recovery ratio was calculated by comparing fare revenue with operating expenses for each mode, with data sourced from the NTD’s National Transit Profile Summary for All Agencies and the MBTA’s NTD Transit Profile.