Boston’s Little Dig

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA or “the T” for short) has a problem. It has a $3 billion maintenance backlog, and must spend $470 million a year just to keep that backlog from growing. It has all kinds of wonderful plans to close that backlog, but those plans are all in the future. In the meantime, its latest budget proposal spares less than $100 million for maintenance.

So suppose someone offered the T a billion dollars. Heck, suppose someone offered it $2 billion. What percent of this money do you think the T would spend on maintenance?

Score a point if you guessed zero, for MBTA is currently spending $2 billion–half from the state and half from the feds–building a 4.3 mile extension of its Green light-rail line from Cambridge to Medford. When completed, this line is projected to increase the T’s total ridership by 7,000 “new” transit trips per day. Since the T currently carries about 1.4 million trips per weekday, the extension will increase ridership by 0.5 percent.

Of course, the extension wasn’t supposed to cost $2 billion or increase ridership by just 0.5 percent. Back in 2005, the major investment study for the project estimated it would cost just $390 million (see page 5-55). That’s in 2005 dollars, but adjusting for inflation to today’s dollars increases it to about $450 million, less than a quarter of the actual cost. Projected annual operating costs have also nearly quadrupled from $9.9 million in 2005 to $36.9 million today. The 2005 study also predicted the line would increase increase daily ridership by more than 14,000 trips, or 1 percent, not just 0.5 percent (same page).

The FTA no longer requires transit agencies to do major investment studies, but at the time such a study was supposed to fairly evaluate a wide range of alternatives. However, almost all the alternatives in this study were some form of rail or another. The one bus alternative was called “transportation system management” or TSM, and this is one case where the overestimated ridership and underestimated costs actually made it appear that rail would be more cost effective than bus. The document estimates that the proposed alternative (1A) would cost $9.59 per hour of travelers’ time saved, while the TSM alternative would cost $10.54.

Of course, quadruple the rail costs and cut riders in half and the actual cost per hour is much greater–at the FTA’s current specified discount rate of 2 percent, I estimate it is roughly $67. Until the Obama administration changed the rules, the FTA automatically rejected federal funding for any project costing more than $25 per hour of time saved.

So here we have another example of a transit agency and political system that can’t say “no” even when costs quadruple and benefits are cut in half. They can’t even say no when the existing system is falling apart. This is just one more example of why transportation should be funded out of user fees rather than tax dollars, as the managers of user-fee-funded systems have incentives to keep their infrastructure in good condition to keep from losing customers and not to build new projects they can’t afford.


11 thoughts on “Boston’s Little Dig

  1. FrancisKing

    @ Antiplanner:

    “Score a point if you guessed zero”

    Hey, I’m a winner!

    But, seriously, if the US government provides money for a specific project, it would be illegal to spend it on maintenance, however sensible it would otherwise be.

  2. Sandy Teal

    Remember when Obama spent all that money putting people to work with an economic “stimulus”? Obama couldn’t find enough places to shovel money at, lamenting that nothing was “shovel ready”.

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    Sandy Teal wrote:

    Remember when Obama spent all that money putting people to work with an economic “stimulus”? Obama couldn’t find enough places to shovel money at, lamenting that nothing was “shovel ready”.

    At least in some states in the East, a lot of that stimulus money was spent on well-needed highway repaving projects. Not new capacity, but a good use of those dollars.

    Long sections of I-95 in South Carolina had a wearing surface that had been little changed since the 1960’s, when most of the freeway was built, and the Obama stimulus allowed a smooth ride on this section of road for the first time in decades.

  4. C. P. Zilliacus

    Maybe the T should spend a little money hardening its transit network against winter storms?

    WCVB Channel 5 (ABC) Boston [video]: MBTA General Manager on shutdown: “This was a perfect storm” MBTA Again Experiencing Major Delays

    The MBTA once again experienced delays and overwhelmed buses, trains, and commuter rail lines on Wednesday when it reopened in a limited capacity after a barrage a storms.

    Overcrowding of a limited arsenal of vehicles was a major issue on Wednesday morning.

    “Because of longer waits and fewer cars, we are seeing crowds on the platforms,” MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said. The MBTA suggested that commuters hoping to transfer at North Station or South Station consider walking to their destination as an alternative due to the crowding constraints.

    “There may not be room left,” Pesaturo said.

    The Red Line and Orange Line operated at a limited capacity. Shuttle buses replaced the Red Line between JFK/UMass and Braintree stations. Commuters hoping to take the shuttle bus were forced to wait in a line that stretched a ways, as this photo from p_allyce on Instagram showed.

  5. OFP2003

    I used to live in Medford and I worked in downtown Boston and I didn’t have a car for at least a year.
    And there is no way I would have ever ridden this new train to work, Medford has a highway that goes straight into Boston, and (at the time) the T provided an express bus that went from where I lived (short walk) to where I worked (short walk) in a short time. … So who are they saying this train is for?
    What a waste…

  6. JOHN1000

    Francis correctly points out that it would be illegal to use the money for something else. (Not that the transit guys really care).

    But that emphasizes the problem. Rather than ask the feds for money to maintain and repair the existing line that carries huge numbers of riders and is essential to the City’s commuters, they ask the feds for money to build a new, expensive unneeded line.

    And the feds (rather than actually studying the needs of the area) give our tax money where it is least needed.

  7. Frank

    “Not new capacity, but a good use of those dollars.”

    You mean that credit and/or debt monetization.

    “And the feds (rather than actually studying the needs of the area) give our tax money where it is least needed.”

    Assumes the projects were paid for with tax revenue rather than debt financing.

  8. ahwr

    John1000 if you want cities and states to apply for federal funds to pay for maintenance programs then you need congress to pass a transportation bill that makes maintenance needs eligible for grants that currently are only available for new projects.

  9. C. P. Zilliacus

    More from

    MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott Resigning

    MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott announced Wednesday that she will resign this April after an embattled couple of weeks for the transportation agency.

    In a resignation letter, Scott said she would ensure a “smooth transition” and work with the MassDOT Board of Directors to help find her replacement over the next 60 days. Her final day in office will be April 11.

    “It goes without saying that the MassDOT Board and the new Administration can count on me to stay fully engaged throughout this period,” she wrote.

    Scott first took the job in December 2012 and previously held senior positions with other metropolitan transit authorities, including the MTA in New York. According to a bio published on the MBTA website, Scott has worked in public transit for nearly 30 years.

  10. The Antiplanner Post author

    It might be illegal to use the federal money for maintenance, but more than a billion dollars of state money is going into the Green Line extension. There is no reason why that can’t be used for rail rehabilitation.

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