Pioneer Institute Says MBTA Is Fastest-Growing Transit Agency. It's Not.

Posted by: Tony Dutzik on

The first time I saw it, I scratched my head.

“The state has expanded the MBTA more than any other major transit system in the country over the last 25 years, even though it serves a relatively slow-growing metropolitan area,” wrote the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute in a February 12 Statement on the T.

That’s funny, I thought. I’ve lived in the Boston area for almost that whole time and can only remember a few significant expansions of the MBTA: for example, the restoration of commuter rail service on the Old Colony lines in the 1990s and 2000s, and the addition of the Silver Line.

Those expansions were significant, sure. But could they really hold a candle to those in cities like Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, which have built entirely new urban rail systems in that time, or even places like New Jersey and Washington, D.C., which have built new light rail and subway lines?

And slow-growing? Have you been to Boston lately?

The other day, it came up again, in a nearly identical statement made by Governor Baker during an interview on WGBH radio. Speaking of those advocating for new transportation revenue, he said, “They don’t look at the fact that no mass transit system in the United States has grown faster than ours has over the course of the past 15 years in a marketplace where the population basically hasn’t changed very much at all.”

I wondered: Are Pioneer and the governor telling it straight? Is the MBTA really the fastest-growing transit system in the United States?

The short answer is: no. Not by a long shot. The long answer goes like this:

There are several ways to assess how fast a transit system is growing. The National Transit Database (NTD), which is compiled by Federal Transit Administration, presents a few such measures: “directional route-miles” (the physical extent of the network’s bus and train lines), “vehicle revenue-hours” (the amount of time buses and trains drive around picking up passengers), and “vehicle revenue-miles” (the number of miles those vehicles log in serving passengers).

NTD data are only available online going back to the early 1990s, so they don’t help us evaluate Pioneer’s claim that the T is the fastest-growing transit agency in the last 25 years.[1] But they do allow us to track the growth of the T relative to other transit agencies over the past 15 and 20 years.

For each of the three measures above, we used NTD data to calculate the absolute and percentage growth over 15-year and 20-year time spans for the nation’s 50 largest transit agencies by ridership in 2013. (Due to changes in transit agency governance over that span and inconsistencies in reporting, we were forced to drop four to five agencies out of each comparison, leaving us with 45 or 46 agencies, depending on the measure).  The results can be found in the table below:[2]

In no category has the MBTA been the “fastest-growing” of the nation’s largest transit agencies, and in only two categories does it crack the top 10.

However, the MBTA does crack the top 10 in another category: absolute growth in transit ridership. That means that for as fast as the MBTA has grown in the past two decades, ridership has grown roughly as fast.

The Pioneer Institute has long been fixated on commuter rail expansion as the core of the problem with today’s MBTA. So what happens when we just look at commuter rail?

Among 21 commuter rail agencies we reviewed,[3] the MBTA ranked fifth for the number of route-miles of service added in the last 15 years, trailing new systems in Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Silicon Valley. Over the last 20 years, the MBTA ranks second, trailing Los Angeles.

When you look beyond commuter rail, however, the MBTA “expansion fever” myth breaks down completely. Heavy rail subway lines? MBTA has added no new service in the last two decades; Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area have all seen significant expansions. Light rail? Again, the MBTA has added nothing while other cities – Dallas, Los Angeles, Denver, Salt Lake City, Portland, Sacramento, Phoenix, Seattle, Minneapolis, and the New Jersey Hudson River waterfront have built entirely new light rail systems or dramatically expanded existing systems.

Bus? Don’t even go there. According to the MBTA Blue Book, the agency provides fewer scheduled round trips and fewer scheduled vehicle miles of bus service than it did in 2000.

There is no indicator that I am aware of on which the MBTA can be said to be the fastest-growing transit agency over the last 15 or 20 years, and the same is likely true for the past 25 years. Even when one focuses only on commuter rail, the T can only be said to be near the top, not at the top. And when one looks at other forms of rail service, the agency has not only not grown, but has been blown out of the water by other cities that see the benefits transit has brought to places like Boston and want a piece of it for themselves.

As for population growth, Pioneer might see the addition of nearly 300,000 new residents to the Boston metro area in the past 13 years – more than 130,000 of them since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau – as slow growth. But with a forest of cranes all over the city, and with Boston in the midst of its biggest building boom ever, the need for transportation options is clearly growing.

The question of whether the T has expanded wisely in the past or should expand in the future is a legitimate one that’s worthy of debate. But the Pioneer Institute should know better than to use exaggerated non-facts to bolster its anti-expansion crusade. And Governor Baker should exercise care in repeating them.



[1] Though there is little reason to believe the picture would be substantially different, since there were only very modest expansions of the T between 1988 and 1993.

[2] Note that the number of directional route-miles reported by the MBTA increased discontinuously in 1997 and decreased discontinuously in 2010. It is unknown whether these changes are the result of changes in reporting, actual changes in service, or a combination of the two. Thus, the extremely low ranking for system growth over 15 years may not comport with reality, but there is no reason to believe that any shift in reporting methodology would vault the MBTA from near-last to first.

[3] We excluded the Downeaster, which is listed as a commuter rail service but is really more of a hybrid commuter/inter-city rail system. If you were to include the Downeaster, the MBTA would rank sixth for commuter rail system growth since 1998 and third for growth since 1993.