Come on and Take Free Ride

It seems the County Executive is a great fan of the Edgar Winter Group’s long ago hit song that invited folks to take a free ride. The difference is that the Executive is the "boss" at the Port Authority and has a taxpayer built light rail system that he can invite people to ride for free.

The Executive and some downtown groups want to see a fare free ride between the North Shore and Station Square. The draw is the free access to the North Shore with the stadiums, parking and entertainment as the attractions for T riders.

There is so much wrong with this idea. First of all, when the Federal and state governments put up hundreds of millions to support construction of rail systems and then pour in more hundreds of millions to subsidize ridership, they do not intend that rides be free. Free rides can and almost certainly will lead to artificially induced overuse of the system that will entail requiring adding trains to handle the free riders. More trains, more driver time, more costs for vehicle and track maintenance, security, more management time for scheduling etc. In this regard, the amount of money the Executive has requested from businesses to cover the cost of the free rides is a pittance compared to the cost of providing the North Shore service.

As was observed soon after the opening of the North Shore Connector, free rides after large events result in long lines and very long wait times. The problem for the Port Authority is that it can carry only a few thousand (perhaps as few as five thousand) people per hour safely. If 20,000 people show up at the North Shore stations after an event expecting a ride, they are going to create a massive logjam. The system is not designed to handle that kind of crush.

Far better to stop the free ride regime now. If someone rides the North Shore Connector they should pay at least a nominal fare. The subsidy per rider from construction costs is already at least $20. Given there is little chance the Connector will ever pay for its construction costs, the Port Authority ought at a minimum try to recover the operating costs of the system.

If the Connector cannot cover its operating costs through fares, then the massive expenditures to build it were even more of a boondoggle than opponents argued it would be before it was built.

Looking at Light Rail Numbers

An article over the weekend about the possible extension of light rail in the future noted that the number of annual trips on the light rail system stood at 7.7 million in 2012, which is an increase of 15% over 2011 totals (6.7 million according to APTA data). At 7.7 million, 2012 ridership would be the highest light rail total back to 1996 (as far as APTA data goes back) besting the previous high during that time frame (7.5 million in 1997).

Of course, we don’t know how much the extension of "free" rides between the North Shore Connector stations and Downtown have boosted totals or the newness of the Connector itself had an effect. APTA does not provide a breakout of the light rail mode’s expenses, revenue, or employees as does the PAT budget: we noted last year the baseline data. There is not yet a modal comparison available for the 12-13 fiscal year nor the 13-14 fiscal year for the Authority. We did calculate the "expense per rider" by dividing total expenses of the light rail system by ridership at $7.08 in 2011. With the boost in ridership in 2012 to 7.7 million if the cost per rider was to stay roughly the same the Authority’s light rail expenses could have risen to no more than $54.8 million.

The APTA data does however separate by quarter; the biggest boost over 2011 ridership came in the second quarter (April, May, and June) when there were 2.0 million unlinked trips. The previous year there were 1.67 million in that quarter.

PAT Light Rail: Pre-Connector Operating Data

With the opening of the North Shore Connector and the extension of light rail to the North Shore, the debate over whether it was wise to spend and shift Federal, state, and local money to the project now moves to what impacts it will have on the light rail system as a whole. 

 

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A Snapshot of PAT Data as the Connector Begins Service

With the opening of the North Shore Connector and the extension of the trolley line to the North Shore, and until there is the extension of the project to the airport or the North Hills as boosters of the project have used as justification, it is important to take a snapshot of light rail operations as they are in order to establish baseline for comparison to future operating data.

This year’s Port Authority budget (2011-12) put in some growth in rail ridership (less than 1%) and expenses (5.2%) due to the opening of the Connector. But actual and audited numbers for PAT’s light rail system (in the 2010-11 fiscal year) without the Connector’s impact shows the following:

  • Total Rail Ridership: 6,918,000
  • Total Passenger Revenue: $9,811,000
  • Total Other Revenue: $295,000
  • Total Expense: $49,038,000
  • Total Rail Employees: 468
  • Total Length of system: 48.9 miles
  • Total Rail Vehicles: 83

The critical measure we can glean from this data is "total expense per rider" which stands at $7.08. Of course, this does not take into account the capital expense for the existing rail system which would boost the expense per rider significantly higher. But as the Connector leg gets up and operating and ridership numbers come in it will be easy to see from PAT’s numbers what happens to the total expense per rider. Based on FY11 numbers, a light rail trip was about $1.50 more than a PAT bus trip.

More than 80% of the total expense for light rail is accounted for by salaries and benefits, leaving $9 million or so to be spread between materials, utilities, provisions for injuries and damages, purchased services, and other. Passenger revenue ($9.8 million) covers about 20% of total expense. Recall that until 2015 corporate sponsorships are underwriting free trips between Downtown and the North Shore stations (and vice versa) so "other" revenue on the light rail system may rise slightly relative to passenger revenue.

Connector a Success if No One Uses It? A Preposterous Argument

In a comment dripping with ex post rationalization, the Port Authority’s Executive Director says the Connector will be a success even if no one uses it. The Director claims, in effect, that the prodigious engineering feat of building the Connector justifies the costs. And concludes the amazing rationalization by saying we have built the project and it is up to the region to use it.

This is how spending nearly $520 million and creating untold burdens on businesses and travelers through the City is to be justified?

How can a half billion dollar, multi year project get built with no firm expectation or forecast of how may users it will have when completed and into the future? This is ridiculousness in the extreme. There were forecasts of ridership when the project was submitted to the Federal Government for funding. Why are those no longer valid? In a word, because they were not credible then and certainly not now in light of the elimination of the Steel Plaza station to the Convention Center leg of the project.

To have spent so much money, time and effort on the Connector and now all they can say in justification is "we hope it works" beggars description.