Monday, September 14, 2009

Red Line Ridership Games, Part One

The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) saved Baltimore’s Red Line project from possible federal disapproval with a last-minute cost-effectiveness improvement of 24%. Part of that improvement was due to a sudden recalculation of daily weekday ridership from 42,100 to 54,000. MTA Deputy Administrator Henry Kay told the Baltimore Sun that the ridership boost was due to replacement of a 1996 dataset with a 2007 dataset. The problem is that given the population trends in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, a huge jump in ridership is the last thing one could expect from updated numbers.

Let’s state the obvious: Baltimore City is coming off decades of population losses. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the city’s population fell from 909,951 in 1969 to 640,150 in 2007 – a 29.7% drop. The city has hovered just above 640,000 since 2002 so it may have stopped shrinking.

But Baltimore City is not the only jurisdiction served by the Red Line. Four of its twenty stations are on the western end of the line located in Baltimore County. Baltimore County’s population has grown from 612,575 in 1969 to 785,830 in 2007, a 28.3% increase. But its growth rate has tapered off lately and may have stopped.

Adding the two jurisdictions together, growth in the county has been offset by decline in the city. The combined population for the two has varied between 1.40 and 1.44 million since 1981 with no clear trend up or down.

What does this have to do with Red Line ridership projections? MTA Deputy Administrator Kay said the agency had been using a 1996 dataset to produce its prior estimate of 42,100 daily weekday riders, but its use of a new 2007 dataset produced its current ridership estimate of 54,000. What happened to the area’s population during those eleven years?

In 1996, the city and county had a combined population of 1,423,523. For several years, the city’s decline was offset by the county’s growth, producing a net trend of no significant change. In 2007, the city and county had a combined population of 1,425,980, a 0.2% rise from 1996. Both the city and county were trending towards no population growth. How can numbers reflecting this data lead to a 28% leap in ridership?

Let’s compare Baltimore City and Baltimore County to an area that has had substantial growth: Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, home to the Purple Line. The latter two counties had a combined population of 1,149,148 in 1969 and 1,766,809 in 2007 – a 53.7% jump. The two counties together grew by 10.5% between 1996 and 2007. If MTA had replaced a 1996 dataset with a 2007 dataset in its analysis on the Purple Line, it would have been justified in finding a significant ridership boost.

It’s hard to say that the two jurisdictions served by the Red Line will benefit from a colossal growth forecast issued after an eleven-year interval when they did not grow – especially when they are coming off forty years of no growth. On its face, that is what MTA wants us to believe. But there may be alternative explanations for the new ridership estimate. We’ll consider four of them in Part Two.