opinion | Robin Washington

No excuse for MBTA report’s faulty math

Governor Charlie Baker testified in support of the MBTA overhaul bill at the State House earlier this month.
Governor Charlie Baker testified in support of the MBTA overhaul bill at the State House earlier this month.Jessica Rinaldi/globe staff/Globe Staff

Now that a Globe analysis has revealed claims about T employees taking off 57 days a year to be as reliable as the Red Line in February, can we look at another unassailable “fact” by Governor Charlie Baker’s MBTA review panel?

Specifically, it’s in the panel’s report under the heading “Stagnating revenue,” asserting that the T recoups a smaller percentage of the system’s overall expenses from fares than do similar-sized transit agencies. The implication is that the T isn’t charging enough, and that smarter people running systems elsewhere know how to get more money out of their riders.

How bad is it? At the T, the report says, fares account for only 39 percent of operating expenses — an embarrassment compared to San Francisco, which takes in 76 percent, and 90 percent in London.*


But wait: What was that asterisk?

“Includes the underground/subway system only, not the entire Transport for London system,” the fine print said, meaning it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.

From the MBTA report.
From the MBTA report.

In most cities, subway and commuter rail fares cover a higher percentage of operating costs than do buses, trolleys, disabled rider transit services and even boats, all of which the T runs and has to subsidize. For London, the panel didn’t count those double-decker buses or anything else that doesn’t run in the tube.

At least there was an asterisk. In its comparison to San Francisco, the panel mentioned only the subway system — BART — and totally ignored other agencies: Caltrain, which runs the commuter rail, and Muni, which operates the buses and light rail.

The National Transportation Database, which the report cites as its source, puts Muni’s fare revenue at 31 percent and Caltrain’s at 64. Combine those with BART, and San Francisco’s total drops dramatically to 48 percent (based on the total revenue of all three agencies, not by taking an average of their percentages.)


Likewise, the panel’s comparison to Chicago’s CTA — 44 percent — is misleading. The agency operates both El and bus routes, but few suburban buses, which are run by PACE (9 percent.) Add to that the commuter rail, METRA, and Chicago’s total falls to 38 percent — 1 percent worse than the MBTA.

The figures are closer for Philadelphia (37 percent from the NTD and 39 percent from the panel) and Washington, D.C. (46 and 48 percent respectively.) But they’re totally out of whack for New York, with the NTD showing 43 percent and the panel claiming 53, a number that isn’t anywhere close in the unbiased federal statistics for the Big Apple except for one of its commuter rail lines.

Curiously, the NTD gives a lower number for the MBTA — 35 percent, compared to the report’s 39 percent — which raises the question how closely the person crunching the numbers for Baker’s panel followed the NTD data, which in that case actually made the T look worse.

But even then, it isn’t the lowest unless you cherry-pick the systems to weigh against it. How about comparing the T with agencies in the nation’s largest metro areas? Along with the above (excluding London), those include Los Angeles (26 percent), Dallas (11), Houston (17), Miami (23) and Atlanta (27) — all ignored in the report and significantly worse than Boston.

Faulty math is one thing, but the biggest disappointment of all this is there’s no reason mislead anyone. After last winter, who doesn’t know the T is broken, and broke, and has to raise fares? Every day your train didn’t come was convincing enough, regardless of what any other system was doing.

You didn’t need a panel to tell you that. But at least they could have gotten their facts right.


Robin Washington writes about transportation. He may be reached at robin@robinwashington.com or via Twitter @robinbirk.