Boston Becomes A Real City (and other thoughts)

In December the MBTA announced the T will run trains until 3am on weekends in a 1-year pilot program to start in 2014. This is amazing. It’s the best news I’ve gotten in ages. And it finally brings Boston out of the dark ages. I love Boston, would love to live there, and have long enjoyed what it has to offer as a city.* But it has always punched below its weight as a source of social merriment for two reasons. Bars close at 2am (thanks Puritans) and the T didn’t run past ~12:47am. If you wanted to stay out as late as bars were open you had to be willing to walk or to take a cab to change venue, or just to get home. Coming in from the suburbs via the Green Line was especially problematic, since missing the last train out meant a cab ride not just from say, the South End to Porter Square, but from the South End to 128. Staying out until the end of the night in those circumstances wasn’t even an option.

Now, thanks to corporate largesse and $20 million from Governor Patrick, the last 2 hours of weekend nights in Boston, for at least a year anyway, won’t be the exclusive preserve of racewalkers and cab addicts. However, if the MBTA keeps expanded service beyond the 1-year pilot program, “the T would consider increasing the price for the weekend service to help pay the costs to keep it running the extra two hours.” And the interesting mix of state money, corporate funding, and potentially increased ridership fees that would/will be used to finance expanded hours provides a useful opportunity to discuss how Boston’s public transportation is financed more broadly, and by extension, what exactly we expect it to do.

The MBTA finished FY ’12 with $504.7 million in Total Operating Revenue, compared to ~$1.02 billion in pure Operating Expenses.** So right away it’s clear that consumers “should” be paying more for their rides if the MBTA is assessed purely on a P&L basis as a service provider. But of course that doesn’t seem to properly reflect how we understand what the MBTA provides. It’s not a public good per se, but it’s definitely a service in a way that doesn’t fit neatly within the contours of a privately-provided one.

First, the state has a logistical interest in operating a single transportation system, at least when it comes to trains, subways, and light rail (allowing for competing private subway lines would be a disaster), which right away makes anything the transportation system does somewhat not private-y. Second, the state has a social interest in making transportation as widely accessible as possible in order to foster economic growth, attract population, and reduce pollution.*** As the MBTA’s Operating Income differential suggests, doing so is likely to require this transportation to be provided at below-market rates.

So if public transportation is in fact a public service the provision of which is not determined purely by the financial feasibility of doing so (but rather the social desirability of having such a service available), then it’s a little odd (conceptually speaking, if not practically or politically so) that we pay for it via fares which are explicitly used to finance (in Boston’s case) MBTA operations. With this financing structure, fare increases can be justified rhetorically on the basis of the Operating Income differential (“see, we don’t even come close to paying for the cost of this service”) and opposed on the basis of the public service argument (“the MBTA isn’t a private company and it should keep its fares as low as possible to expand access to its services). But this obfuscates the fact that the actual question which should be asked is, “how much MBTA service do we want?” Full stop. If the answer to that question is, “loads more than any viable fare structure could hope to pay for on its own,” so what? That’s what a state’s gross revenue is for. Considering MBTA fares as a discreet financing source apart from state revenue needlessly complicates the discussion. It may turn out we can’t afford the level of MBTA service we want, but that’s an assessment that should be made in the context of the state’s overall ability to pay, not just its ability to generate fare revenue.

*There is admittedly a bit (a lot?) of home team bias in this assessment, but still
**This total is the sum of Wages; Materials, Supplies and Services; Purchased Commuter Rail Service; Purchased Local Service Subsidy, in order to reflect the most basic cost of simply getting trains/buses, boats, etc up and running each day
***These are mostly off the top of my head, so please do suggest more or rebut these ones