The T takes a toll

The MBTA is a system cobbled together to serve a congested urban area, and that boosts expenses

By Noah Bierman and Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / October 18, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

When the MBTA opened its Silver Line service to Logan International Airport five years ago, managers needed a specific bus, one that no other transit agency in the United States had used.

It had to be 60 feet long, accordion style, and 20 feet longer than the standard, to fit more passengers. And it had to be able to run both on an overhead electrical wire for trips inside a new tunnel and on diesel fuel for driving on regular roads.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commissioned a fleet of 32 vehicles, the only set of its kind in North America. They require their own spare parts, their own maintenance standards, and their own driver training.

Such extraordinary measures and others like them taken by choice and necessity over more than a century have created a dizzying combination of boats, trolleys, subways, buses, and trains that span two states. It is a costly complexity that makes the state’s ongoing assessment of the T’s efficiency particularly tricky.

A Globe comparison of the MBTA’s operating costs with those of other US transit agencies shows an agency that has significant room to reduce its expenses. While on the high side, the T is not far out of line with its peers in other big cities, especially considering that the cost of living in Boston is among the highest in the nation. Further, because the T is such a well-used system, it tends to fare better when its costs are broken down per passenger.

The Green Line, for example, is relatively expensive to run, but gets more bang for its buck than similar systems, because it carries more passengers than any light-rail system in the country.

Bus service costs more in Greater Boston than in other large cities by several measures, according to the Globe’s analysis, while commuter rail costs less.

The most recent 2007 figures for costs, operating miles, passenger counts, and other key measures were reported by more than 660 American transit agencies to the Federal Transit Agency and are included as part of its National Transit Database.

The MBTA, the nation’s fifth-largest mass transit system, is an agency at a crossroads, in the midst of leadership upheaval and the target of an independent audit to determine why it remains in such dire financial straits.

An on-again, off-again proposal to increase fares has riders on edge. In August, Governor Deval Patrick helped push out general manager Daniel A. Grabauskas.

And then, facing criticism over the $327,000 buyout given to Grabauskas, Patrick ordered a top-to-bottom review of the agency’s management and finances by David D’Alessandro, the former John Hancock chief executive, due by Nov. 1.

On top of that, the T will experience unprecedented changes in its management structure next month, under a landmark transportation law that will put a single governing board in charge of the state’s entire mass transit operations, its highways, tollways, vehicle registration office, and general aviation airports.

The T’s most basic and most significant problems are well documented. It owes more than $8 billion in debt and interest, a heavy burden that has prevented it from attacking an additional $2.7 billion backlog of maintenance and equipment replacement needed to keep the system safe.

The lack of money to replace aging equipment, a national problem for older rail systems, also increases operating costs because it forces the T to spend more money on overtime and stopgap repairs, according to people inside and outside the T who have examined its problems.

“We’re not working off the maintenance backlog,’’ said Ferdinand Alvaro, an outgoing member of the T’s board of directors who led its finance committee. “All we’re doing is spending whatever we need to keep it from getting worse.’’

Analysts who have examined the T generally agree that those issues are paramount and have led to some of the recent breakdowns on Red Line trains, for example.

The federal data reviewed by the Globe focus on operating costs and do not take into account debt, the system’s unmet maintenance needs, or chronic problems finishing projects on time and on budget.

But conclusions based on day-to-day operating costs are controversial in transportation circles. The T can look efficient or expensive compared with other agencies, depending on the type of transportation analyzed and how costs are broken down.

Calculating what it costs to run an hour of bus service, for example, yields a different ranking than calculating the cost of running that bus for a mile. Other variables include differences in trip length, size of train cars, and regional cost of living.

Comparisons between transit agencies are “anecdotal at best,’’ said Jonathan Davis, deputy director and chief financial officer at the MBTA. “Our numbers are certainly in line with our peers for operating in an urban environment.’’

Jonathan H. Klein, a former chief mechanical officer for Amtrak, said the cost per mile of running vehicles, which is quite high at the T, is a more significant measure of performance than the per-passenger cost.

Crowding vehicles looks good on a mathematical basis, but it masks real questions of efficiency in moving buses and trains, he said.

“That’s what a taxpayer is paying for: Putting service out on the street where the passengers can ride in it,’’ said Klein, who started his career in the 1970s on the MBTA’s Red Line and also worked in other transit systems.

“If you cram seven people into a Cadillac Escalade, the Escalade looks mathematically efficient compared with three comfortable people in a Toyota Prius.’’ he said. But the Prius is actually more efficient.

Nigel Wilson, a transit specialist at MIT who has studied bus and rail around the world, said the T’s costs are not unreasonable, given its size and the cost of living in the area.

He agrees that the T’s complexity adds to its costs, but said moving passengers around is the primary goal of transit agencies, not keeping costs low.

On the Silver Line airport shuttle, for example, the need to open the Seaport and link to Logan using a vehicle that could carry large numbers of passengers left the T with few alternatives.

MBTA managers also argue that some cost comparisons can be misleading. Counting the per-mile cost to run a vehicle, for example, penalizes small and congested cities like Boston where trains and buses often travel short distances at low speeds.

Yet many of the agencies included in the Globe’s comparisons run in similarly congested areas and, in some cases, spend less money on a per-mile basis.

A recent weekday trip through the system - which began on a commuter rail train passing by Walden Pond and ended on a ferry boat traversing Boston Harbor - demonstrated the extent of the T’s diversity.

It took more than seven hours, almost an entire business day, to complete a journey that touched on most of the MBTA’s major components and vehicles.

Passengers interviewed along the route, though diverse in income and education level, echoed a common refrain: They depend on the T and need the state to invest in it. They were generally tolerant of its flaws, and many said they were grateful for its performance.

Helen Ellison, sitting on the Route 28 bus snacking on walnuts, said she puts up with a lot of crowding and delays in her travels because she has no choice.

“There are times when it’s running good, and there are days when it’s running really, really bad,’’ she said, calmly pointing out that she was running late to yet another appointment.

Bruce Wickelgren, a Suffolk University professor who was using the Green Line to get from Cleveland Circle to Coolidge Corner, was more enthusiastic.

“I know a lot of people have a lot of problems with it,’’ said Wickelgren, “but I sold my car, and it allowed me to buy a condo.’’

Join Noah Bierman and videographer Scott LaPierre as they travel across the metro area on all branches of the T.