Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Red Line Ridership Games, Part Two

Four alternative explanations for MTA’s overnight 28% Red Line ridership hike are worth examining.

1. Baltimore City’s population may be trending younger, and would therefore be more likely to take transit.
Some of the city’s neighborhoods have been gentrifying since the 1990s, especially Federal Hill, Fells Point, Locust Point, Little Italy and other neighborhoods near the Inner Harbor. Has that fundamentally changed Baltimore’s age mix to favor younger transit riders?

The answer is no. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, people under 30 accounted for 45.1% of the city’s population in 1990, 42.8% in 2000 and 43.1% in 2007. In Baltimore County, people under 30 accounted for 40.6% of the population in 1990, 38.4% in 2000 and 38.5% in 2007. Gentrification may be happening in some neighborhoods, but it has not fundamentally changed the age distribution across the area. It may be that while young childless couples are moving in, young couples with children are moving out.

2. The outer suburbs are growing faster and they will drive higher ridership.
It’s certainly true that Anne Arundel, Carroll, Howard and Harford Counties are growing faster than the inner core. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the combined population of these four jurisdictions with Baltimore City and Baltimore County grew from 2,463,805 in 1996 to 2,617,290 in 2007 – a 6.2% increase. That’s positive, but it does not come close to MTA’s 28% ridership jump.

It’s worth recalling the regional geography in looking at the role of the outer suburbs in transit ridership. Anne Arundel residents coming up from the south would have little reason to board an east-west transit line. Carroll and Howard residents would be stuck waiting for opposing trains to pass through the single-tracked Cooks Lane tunnel. Eldersburg, the closest Carroll location, is 13 miles from the western end of the Red Line. Joppatowne, the closest Harford location, is 16 miles from the eastern end of the Red Line. Given these constraints, the VAST majority of riders will probably come from Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

3. Employment, not population, is the driver of ridership.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Baltimore City’s employment dropped from 402,600 in 1996 to 369,800 in 2007 – an 8.1% fall. BEA calculates the combined employment of Baltimore City and Baltimore County at 865,051 in 1996 and 918,311 in 2007 – a 6.2% increase. There’s little support for a big ridership increase here.

4. MTA’s rationale.
Baltimore Sun reporter Mike Dresser obtained this explanation for the ridership boost from MTA Deputy Administrator Henry Kay:

On the revised numbers, Kay said the environmental statement relied on 1996 data because those were the most recent available at the time. He said the final plan relied on data from a 2007 on-board ridership survey.

Among the changes found in the newer survey, Kay said, were a significant increase in the number of people living in downtown Baltimore and a greater concentration of households without autos than was reflected in the older data. Both findings increased the number of potential riders, he said. Kay further noted that the Baltimore Metropolitan Council has, since 1996, revised its forecast of population and households in the region.

Kay said the MTA has been checking its methodology with the Federal Transit Administration continuously through the process and is confident it will stand up to the agency’s scrutiny.

“It would be very foolish of us to publish numbers and recommend a locally preferred alternative we’ve not (had) vetted by the agency that will actually provide funding,” Kay said.
There are four problems with this. First, an on-board ridership survey is inherently unverifiable with corroborating data from impartial third parties. MTA is basically saying, “They’re our internal numbers. Trust us.” Second, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council’s newest forecast estimates a 2010-2030 population increase of 4.3% in Baltimore City, 3.4% in Baltimore County and 3.8% in the two jurisdictions together. These numbers hardly suggest big-time growth to support Red Line ridership. Third, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council is led by the chief executives of the six jurisdictions in and around the city, two of whom (Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith) have been open supporters of the Red Line option picked by MTA. Accepting that organization’s data is akin to letting Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson draft population forecasts to back up the Purple Line. Fourth, all of the above would have to add up to a 28% increase in ridership that, by extraordinarily lucky coincidence, generated a cost effectiveness number that barely squeezed under the federal threshold. This all stretches the boundaries of belief.

And so we have scoured the databases of three of the world’s greatest statistical agencies: Census, BLS and BEA. Try as we might, we cannot find any justification for MTA’s last-minute 28% ridership boost for the Red Line. But perhaps we should call on the only information resource that really matters on this subject:

The Greater Baltimore Committee.