Greater City Providence

The Globe rides the T

The Boston Globe takes a look at the MBTA and it’s myriad array of service modes from bus to trolley to commuter rail to boat and more, and concludes that in part, this complexity contributes to high costs. As part of this report, there is a multimedia section looking at all the various modes. Reporter Noah Bierman and videographer Scott LaPierre travel in one day on each mode of the T (commuter rail, trackless trolley, red line, Mattapan trolley, bus, orange line, green line, blue line, silver line, and commuter boat).

The complexity of the system is not the only factor driving costs on the T. The cost of living, and as a result the cost of labor, hits the T’s bottom line as well. Probably the biggest issue affecting the T’s budget is it’s crippling $8 billion debt which is keeping it from fully attacking a massive backlog of needed maintenance and modernizations.

The lack of money to replace aging equipment, a national problem for older rail systems, also increases operating costs because it forces the T to spend more money on overtime and stopgap repairs, according to people inside and outside the T who have examined its problems.

MBTA managers are quick to point out that the financial data can be read many different ways with varying results of the efficiency of the T. For instance, T expenses often calculate as being higher per mile than other agencies, however the T is often carrying far more passengers on those miles equating to a lower cost per passenger. Looking at the financials outlined in the multimedia piece, the T’s rail lines all have a lower cost per passenger than the base fare. A separate report breaks it down.

It costs the T about $12 for every mile a subway train travels, the fifth costliest among the nation’s 15 similar rail systems. But because those expenses are spread among so many passengers at the T, it costs $1.82 to carry each passenger, the third least expensive system in that regard, according to the most recently available national data from 2007 budgets.

What is interesting when looking at the T versus RIPTA, is that the T is funded largely by sales taxes whereas RIPTA is funded largely by gas taxes. Of course when driving patterns change (such as when gas hits $4/gallon) the gas tax revenue goes down, just when demand is rising.

On his daylong journey, Noah Bierman interviewed many passengers and found they support and depend on the T.

Passengers interviewed along the route, though diverse in income and education level, echoed a common refrain: They depend on the T and need the state to invest in it. They were generally tolerant of its flaws, and many said they were grateful for its performance.

What we need is a diversity of Rhode Islanders to begin to feel similarly about public transportation.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • The Providence to Boston commuter works great. On time virtually every day at least for the 4 months I used it. The Red line going toward Braintree worked well too. No real delays.

    I think part of the reason it costs so much for MBTA services is because of the variety of vehicles they have. It pretty much uses every form of surface transit available.

    Now RIPTA, that’s another story. Here in RI we’re going to end up with BRT (A la the Silver Line), and streetcars in Providence (Again, had em’ in 1948!)

  • By the way I personally prefer “Party Train,” by the “Gap Band” for the music to this video.

Providence, RI
5:22 am8:20 pm EDT
Feels like: 77°F
Wind: 7mph SSW
Humidity: 93%
Pressure: 30.12"Hg
UV index: 4
90°F / 70°F
93°F / 73°F
93°F / 77°F