Go to public meetings

A chart that looks conspicuously like one which has
appeared on this page.

I went to a public meeting tonight regarding the 70 bus. I go to a decent number of public meetings, and this one piqued my interest because of my interest (and use) of the 70. So I trudged out in the 5˚ temperatures to Watertown to talk bus schedules.

So did a couple dozen other people. But, of course, they didn’t want to talk about the nitty gritty of bus schedules. They wanted to air their completely unrelated concerns. Melissa Dullea, who manages to not roll her eyes back when people yell at her about completely unrelated topics, was great, and the conversation was steered slightly in the direction that it needed to go. She also gave me a shout-out and used a modified version of my 70 bus post to illustrate the headway issue on the route.

But we also got to discuss such important items as:

  • Whether the T was going to eliminate stops at senior housing
  • How the straps on the buses aren’t low enough and that’s why there isn’t enough capacity
  • That people don’t move to the back of the bus and could drivers please make announcements more often (why people don’t take initiative and ask themselves is beyond me)
  • It would be great if there was a device that would tell you when the next bus was coming that didn’t require a smart phone. We have those. They’re called smart phones. (The best exchange was when one guy said “it would be a big seller” and someone else said “no, it wouldn’t.)
  • That those straps sometimes are missing completely and what can you do about it. (Why not tell the T the bus number.)
Just another day riding the 70. Or, as I like to call it, the 140.
What I’m trying to point out here is that if you don’t go to a public meeting, these people will. It’s not that their concerns aren’t valid, but they’re noisy, and completely uneducated. It’s kind of like NIMBYism: they care only about what directly affects them, with no concern for the greater good. And then when there’s actually an issue: a poorly-timed bus route, like the 70, they service planners will think that no one actually cares, because all they hear about are bus strap heights. I’m serious. Go to public meetings. 
There was a great presentation later about an app (busreport.com) which will allow people to report bus issues to a central database. Right now it is Watertown-specific, but I think it would be portable to the whole system. I love user-generated feedback like this. Now if there was only a device which would let you find out when your bus was coming that wasn’t a smart phone.
I left a few minutes early to catch the 70. And of course, two buses came at the same time.

Banned in Boston: a graduated income tax.

WBUR ran a poll asking about the MBTA. They asked how people rated the MBTA (78% fair or poor; or what it’s worth, I’d rate it “fair”) and how often it was a reliable means to get around (61% “most of the time” or “always”). Nearly everyone (85%) thinks that fixing the T should be a priority, and most blame the outdated system rather than management (66%, although Republicans are more likely to blame management).

They then asked people if they would support additional taxes or fees to help fund the T. 48% said they would. 48% said they would not. (Those who supported it split between somewhat and strongly support, although opposition is skewed towards strongly oppose.) The party crosstabs are somewhat interesting: even 30% of Republicans would support new taxes or fees, more than half of those strongly.

Most of the poll’s crosstabs don’t show anything particularly interesting, and I think the pollsters made a mistake by not asking people how they typically commuted, as that would have been a very interesting crosstab (I talked to the pollster and it may be forthcoming). However, what stands out is how the spread in responses varies. I expected it to vary by geography: people in Boston or “inner core” areas would support more taxes, or be more likely to blame an old system rather than wasteful management. But that’s not the case. Instead, the responses to these questions varies by income and education, which I assume are well-correlated.

For instance:

Q: “Which of the following do you think is most responsible for the issues this winter?”
A1: Old system and Maintenance
A2: Poor management

     Overall  under 25k  25-75k  75-150k   150k+
A1:     66        53      65       72       74
A2:     17        22      17       16       10

Wealthy voters are far more likely to blame the old system than poor management. For low-income respondents, they’re only a bit more than twice as likely to blame the system than the people. For higher income respondents, they’re seven times as likely. There are similar trends when you ask about funding shortfalls:

Q: What is responsible for the system’s financial shortfall?
A1: Not enough legislative funding
A2: Waste and mismanagement
A3: Prioritizing expansion over maintenance

     Overall  under 25k  25-75k  75-150k   150k+
A1:      30       19       25       35      39
A2:      36       41       36       39      32

A3:      23       31       29       22      18

Here, a high-income respondent is twice as likely to blame the legislature than a low-income one.

Q: Would you support paying more taxes/fees for better transit?
A1: Strongly/somewhat support?
A2: Strongly/somewhat oppose?
     Overall  under 25k  25-75k  75-150k   150k+

A1:     48        40       44       50      63
A2:     48        51       55       48      35

Here’s where I think it’s interesting. Wealthier respondents are far more likely to support more taxation. By a nearly two-to-one margin, people making more than $150,000 a year support more taxes, while people making less than half that much are against it. Herein lies the problem: how do you tax the people who make more—and are willing to pay more—without raising taxes on people struggling to get by.

The obvious answer is a progressive income tax. Massachusetts is one of few states without one. The problem with changing the tax structure is that progressive taxation is explicitly forbidden by the state constitution. Oh.

(Update: here’s a good primer on the state income tax with more up-to-date numbers.)

Right now, the standard deduction of $8800 for a family makes the tax structure is slightly progressive. I’ve calculated the tax paid under the current system and a proposed progressive system for various incomes (5.15% after the standard deduction). On the left are the median incomes for each quintile of earners in Massachusetts (from 2006, but the numbers haven’t changed too much since then). On the right are what would happen if you raised the standard deduction to 10,000 and had the following graduated rates: 4% to $25000, 6% to $75000, 8% to $150,000 and 10% on income above $150,000.

Income       Tax       Rate     New Tax    New Rate
$20,000      $577      2.8%     $400       2.0%
$48,000      $2019     4.2%     $1580      3.3%
$75,000      $3409     4.5%     $3200      4.3%
$105,000     $4954     4.7%     $5600      5.3%

$175,000     $8559     4.9%     $11700     6.7%
Total/Avg*   $19518    4.2%*    $22480     4.3%*
(* Average of five rates here, not the average rate paid for the total)

Taxpayers in the lowest two quintiles of earners would see dramatic decreases in their taxes: $200 to $500 (25-35%), which, for lower earners, is likely to be spent, boosting the economy. The middle quintile would also see a small tax break: someone earning $75,000 would get a $200 tax break (5% decrease). Upper earners would see their rates increase, but the change would not be more than $1000 until it was well in to six figures (a million dollar earner would see their tax rate increase from 5.1 to 9.4% and pay an extra $43,000, but I think they’ll still get by).

For the Commonwealth, it would mean new revenue. Based on just these numbers, there would be an increase of 15% from income taxes. But the math is much more complicated than that involving calculus I’m not about to do here since the long tail of high income earners would pay more while the decreases at the lower end of the scale are more minimal, so the revenue increase would likely be a bit higher. So, most Massachusetts residents would get a tax break, and the Commonwealth would have more money to improve services for everyone. And according to the survey, higher income residents would be willing to pay more. It’s a win-win-win, but it can’t be implemented without amending the constitution.

There are two ways to get this on the ballot. One involves a majority of state legislators and is probably a non-starter: Beacon Hill types are notably averse to doing, well, anything. The other way is for 3% of Massachusetts voters would need to sign an initiative petition, and then 25% of two consecutive legislatures would have to approve it. 25% of two consecutive legislatures might actually have a chance. Then it would go to the voters.

The last attempt to make this change in 1994 (a Republican wave year) failed by a wide margin, but an attempt to end the income tax all together in 2008 failed by a wider margin. The political hurdles would be large, but it is clear that the state needs more money to invest, and it is clear that higher earners are willing to pay more taxes. Convincing everyone to vote for this—even if it would be a tax cut for most—would be the hardest part.

And to the naysayers who crow that it will drive away jobs, look at Minnesota. There, the governor raised the top scale of the income tax and turned a deficit in to a budget surplus, which is being reinvested in schools and infrastructure and targeted tax breaks for the working poor. Too bad that it’s a well-educated, progressive state that happens to get a lot of snow: does that sound familiar?

Tallying snow and cold in Boston

I’ll update this scorecard for the next few weeks.
Follow @ofsevit on Twitter for the latest version

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how unprecedented the weather has been in Boston, and how it affects the transportation system. How unprecedented is this February? It is the confluence of two 500-year events: temperature and precipitation have both experienced anomalies at least 3 standard deviations from the mean. It is without parallel.

We covered snowfall in the last post, here we’ll focus more on the cold temperatures.
There has been one month, in the recorded climatological history of Boston, where the average temperature was below 20 degrees. 1934. It was unprecedented cold: the all-time record-low was set in Boston at -18 (a temperature which, with the observation station being moved to Logan Airport in 1936, will likely never be matched; the airport has only recorded three days below -10, the most recent in 1957). The average temperature in February 1934 was 17.5˚. The next highest months were Januarys in the late 1800s when the temperature averaged 20.1 (records date to 1872). Winter temperature records are very nicely normally distributed (69/96/99.7; other months are similarly distributed but there is much less nominal variability in the summer), and there has only once been a a month more than 3 standard deviations from the mean out of more than 400 winter months. 1934.

It is quite likely that eight decades later, 2015 will be the second. The dreaded polar vortex last year gave us departures from the mean of 2 to 3 degrees. (To be fair, we were on the edge of the vortex last year, and the Upper Midwest had similarly anomalous weather.) This year, we’re likely to run more than 10 degrees below normal. The average high for mid-February is 40˚. We haven’t seen that temperature in nearly a month, one of the longest stretches on record.

Thus far, temperatures in Boston have averaged 18.2 degrees, and if the forecast for the next week holds up, the average will actually fall below the 1934 record. With five days beyond then in the month, even if we revert to seasonal climatology normals (unlikely, given the current pattern and modeling), we’d set the second coldest month on record. If the weather stays cold, as is advertised, we’ll see the second winter month more than three standard deviations from the mean. And we might break the all time coldest monthly record. Which, given climate change (mean temperatures have risen 3-4 degrees since 1872), is particularly impressive.

Apparently it has snowed quite a bit as well. And, yes, the seven feet in three weeks has never happened before (and may well never happen again), and the past month has already outpaced any winter season in Chicago, New York or DC (and is one storm away from topping Minneapolis). But without the cold temperatures, it wouldn’t have had the same effect: some snow would have melted even with a few days over 40˚. In 1978, days in the 40s and 50s helped reduce the snowpack to 4″ before The Blizzard. In 2013, a week in the 40s reduced a major blizzard to a few inches of crust. This year, we haven’t seen 40˚ since MLK Day. The snow combined with the temperatures is really a double-whammy: two once-in-500-year events, at the same time.

From Sam Lillo @splillo

It’s something no one could have planned for, and something we’ll never see again. And I do need to update one of the charts in that first post: the 28 day snowfall. The current chart is here. But it may increase.

Update: According to Sam Lillo, who has some great posts like this one, Boston has had more snow in the past month that Buffalo ever has. Will try to confirm (confirmed).

Commuter Rail Ridership and Fares

A Twitterer recently found a 1972 plan for transit-level service along many of Boston’s rail corridors and was floored that ridership on what we now know as Commuter Rail at that time was only 16,000 per day (it was 80,000 in the ’40s and now hovers around 70,000). It has indeed grown, especially the South Side lines: in 1972, only 600 people rode the Worcester Line daily (the then-speedy Mass Pike having recently opened); many single Worcester Line trains now carry that many; the line has grown more than 15-fold over the past 40 years.

But the time of impressive growth is even more impressive: in 1981, ridership on Commuter Rail still hovered around 17,000. And then it began to grow. By 1990, it had more than doubled. And during the 1990s, it more than doubled again, so that by 2000 there were more than four times as many riders as there had been two decades before. Some of this is attributable to extensions after service cuts in the ‘70s, and new service on the Old Colony Lines. But a lot is due to the revitalization of downtown Boston following the growth of the 128 corridor, worsening traffic, and higher parking costs.

For 22 years, from 1981 to 2003, Commuter Rail traffic grew every year but one: 1991, after the collapse of the “Massachusetts Miracle.” But it took off again thereafter, peaking at 74,000 daily riders in 2003.

It hasn’t been that high since.

At first, flat ridership could be blamed on the early-2000s recession. But in the past 15 years, ridership has stagnated. If ridership growth had continued, linearly, at the 1981-2003 rate, it would be poised to cross the 100,000 threshold this year. Instead, the numbers of riders has barely budged, fluctuating up and down as the economy, traffic, and the price of gas has ebbed and flowed, none of them seeming to dramatically affect ridership.

Except for fares. Take a look at the chart. It certainly seems that, once fares started to rise dramatically, ridership flattened out. In the last fifteen years, commuter rail fares have gone up 250%, while they didn’t rise that much in the 20 previous years (despite higher inflation). Subway fares have risen as well, but the nominal amount the fares have risen is very different.

In the ’80s and ’90s, a ride on the T cost 60 or 85 cents (that’s a token, by the way) while Commuter Rail fares ranged from $1.75 to $3, rising to $2.25 to $4. The ratios were similar to today (the highest Commuter Rail fare about five times a subway fare), but the difference only $3. Now? The difference between a tap of a Charlie Card and a punch of a ticket is $8, which is a much greater difference.

There are two salient bits here. First, subway ridership, despite the same relative rise in fares, has seen dramatic increase in passenger counts in recent years, despite the increases in fares. At issue here is the fact that Commuter Rail and urban rail are different populations: Commuter Rail passengers have more options. Most own cars. If the cost of driving and parking is not much more than commuter rail—and parking and driving costs haven’t more than doubled in the past 10 years—they are more likely to abandon the rails and head for the highways. If the MBTA provided excellent rail service, with fast speeds and reliability, this would be less of an push factor. But with old equipment and slow track, it is.

The second piece is that outside of peak travel times, the train generally can’t compete with vehicles on travel time, and on weekends, on ease or cost of parking. And while many trains at rush hour are near capacity, there is plenty of capacity on off-peak and weekend trains. It’s possible that if the T offered off-peak savings—say, $2 off all fares beyond zone 1A, or half off, or something—they could drive enough additional ridership to cover the lost fare revenue, all the while taking cars off the road, which is good for everyone. As would having sensible, clockface midday schedules. And it might even help ridership trends.

It’s rather obvious that Commuter Rail ridership is more elastic than subway ridership: when fares go up, ridership might not go down, but previous trends level off. Since urban riders would cry foul if local fares rose faster than Commuter Rail fares (the subsidy per ride is higher for Commuter Rail riders, although the subsidy per mile is about even), increasing Commuter Rail ridership would require better service. Given the recent performance of the Commuter Rail, this may be a tall order. But it should be a goal.

In defense of the MBTA: This weather is unprecedented

How unprecedented is three and a half feet of snow
in a week? Very.

The calls have gone out. The T screwed up. Some yammer that “it was much worse when I was young” (and we walked uphill to school in it, both ways). Some tell the MBTA that they should be prepared for winter, come on, it’s just a little bit of snow.

The thing is, it is way more snow that has ever fallen. Ever.

How many ski resorts in the US average 6 inches of snow every day (assuming all the snow falls in four months—which it doesn’t)? Zero. Sure, once in a while Squaw or Alta will see 800 inches of snow in a year (2011), and Mount Washington once tallied 567 inches in a year, but the averages are lower. Buffalo might get five feet of snow in a week, but not every week. 40.8 inches of snow a week from December through March adds up to 692 inches of snow. Or 58 feet. What I’m trying to say is that no one, anywhere, is really used to getting three and a half feet of snow a week.

I took the pains of pulling the last 79 years of Boston’s weather data from the National Climate Data Center. It goes back further, but from a different site—not at the airport—which would have required another data pull. Plus, in 1936 the T, well, BERy, was very different, no major highways had been built, and anyone who is under 90 can’t really remember that much from the mid 30s anyway. Sure Grandpappy may go on about the hard winter of ’23, but he also was yelling at Fox News for 45 minutes yesterday. (Here’s the annual data back to 1892, by month)

Anyway, back to the data. In the 7 days ending February 2, there were 40.8 inches of snow. This is unprecedented. The previous record was 31.2 inches, so not only did we break the record, we smashed it by 30%. This would be like if Mark McGwire had broken Roger Maris’s record of 61 home runs and hit 79, and it should be noted that he did this with a second head growing out of his neck. The record wasn’t just broken. It was smashed.

The past two weeks have also seen the snowiest 4 days on record, the snowiest 5 days on record, the snowiest 6 days … well, you get the idea. All the way up to the snowiest two weeks on record. Take any time period between three days and two weeks, and the amount of snow that has fallen in the past couple of weeks has eclipsed anything that has ever happened. So, sorry, Grandpa, it wasn’t like this all the time when you were young. It was never this bad.

Annual snowfall in Boston

Even if you take it out to four weeks, the 10 days ending February 2 are actually 7th on the list. (Unlike some “analysts“, I did not use bizarre rolling averages to pump up the numbers. Any time a date was duplicated, I discarded all but the highest. Also, go Patriots!) If another 13 inches of snow falls in the next 18 days, 2015 will have the highest four week snowfall in history. Looking at the weather models for the next few days, I’d take the over.

So, Grandpa was wrong. It was never like this when he was young. (And despite climate change, the annual snowfall totals are trending up, although there appears to be more variability, too.)

So let’s get to the second part: shouldn’t the T be prepared for winter? Doesn’t winter come pretty regularly every year? Sure. And they probably are. But here’s the thing: winters are variable, and the T is not prepared for all of winter to come in a period of 8 days. If you’re following along, in the 8 days ending on February 2, Boston had 46 inches of snow. That’s Buffalo territory. Hell, that’s Houghton, Michigan-like. And it’s more snow than falls in an average year.

Since 1936, the average snowfall in Boston has been 43 inches. The median is 40.9—a few big winters skew the total up, and since negative snow can’t fall, the floor is 0. Since 1892, just 45 winters have had more than 46 inches of snow. So the past eight days have had more snow than 64% of the winters in the past 122 years. I don’t fault the T for not preparing for this: it’s something that is really off the charts.

The average highest seven days of snowfall in a year is 14 inches. The standard deviation is 7.12 inches. 40 inches is about three and one half standard deviations above the mean. If we make the assumption that these data are normally distributed (and the numbers are 72% within 1 stdev, 96% within 2, and 97.2% within 3, although of course before this year it was 98.7%; this lines up pretty well with the 68/95/99.7 normal distribution despite our relatively small sample size), this amount of snow is something we’d expect less than once every 100 years. Should the T be completely prepared for a once-in-a-century occurrence? Should we spend tens of millions on snow clearance preparation when we’re just as likely to have a winter with a foot of snow as a single week with three feet? With a tight budget, you need priorities, and one of the T’s priorities has been running on a lean staff. No longer are there track gangs who sit by idly all winter waiting for snow. And preparing for—and staffing up for—the proverbial 100 year storm is probably not at the top of the T’s list.

So cut the T—and the highway crews, and the guys in front-end loaders clearing curbs—some slack. They’re dealing with something they’ve never seen before, and it’s amazing that the transportation system is working at all. This is not what your parents dealt with every winter back in the day. This is not something that the T could have remotely been prepared for. It’s never happened before. And if the current weather models hold up, the snow is not anywhere close to done.

If we’re lucky, this might be the jolt that politicians need to move the needle away from “blame the T” to “let’s see if we can do something about the T.” This might be the MBTA’s Muni Meltdown moment (although calling it a meltdown wouldn’t really work). Hopefully something good will come of it as we have a necessary conversation about adequately funding the system (and not just the Olympics).

Oh, let’s just hope there’s somewhere to put all the snow.