Way off track

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A couple of weeks ago, Ari Ofsevit wrote a pretty scathing blog claiming that Pioneer is really, really bad at math.  We take math and transparency seriously here at Pioneer, so after sharing my reply with Ari last week, I wanted to post it publicly.

Ofsevit’s piece is remarkable, not for the quality and length of his ranting, but rather for the fact that he complains about math errors without ever identifying a single math error.  Along the way, he misrepresents lots of stuff.  Here is the hit parade:

  1. Ofsevit is wrong in attributing the absenteeism numbers in the governor’s special panel to Pioneer.  The Institute had nothing to do with the absenteeism numbers they cite (which in part, I would guess, come from internal “employee availability” reports Bev Scott had already developed the previous year).  It is probably worth noting that in speaking with the media on the absenteeism numbers, the Institute has told reporters that if the numbers included vacation days, those figures need to be adjusted as they would skew the analysis.
  2. Ofsevit acknowledges “my math,” which led us to note that 8 million commuters experienced late trains in two years, is correct.  That is, he says the math is bad, but then acknowledges that the MBTA delivered more than 8 million late passenger trips over two years.  He goes on to say that this is not a bad record of performance, which probably disqualifies him from a position at FedEx.  Further, he calls my mention of all of these late trains a “scare tactic.”  Ofsevit and I come at this from two different perspectives – he’s okay with the rate of late trains, and I am not.  He glosses over the games the T and the commuter rail vendor are playing with their definition of “late” or “delayed” trains.  As noted in my piece, the MBTA underestimates its late and delayed trains by redefining what constitutes a late or delayed train.
  3. Ofsevit is wrong in suggesting my numbers on commuter rail ridership are incorrect.  His analysis is simply an extension of the timeline and shows my math to be just fine.  He doesn’t like the context – or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that he extends the timeline because he is making mildly exotic assumptions.  Implicitly he assumes that (1) Pioneer doubts that as a system lays more track it will have higher ridership and (2) Pioneer is against train expansions.  Both are false.  Obviously, laying more track will increase the number of riders; the question is which expansions to take on and when, the costs, and the other transportation choices individuals have.  As for Ari’s second assumption, Pioneer has stated even through this crisis that we support the Green Line extension because of the significant federal funding it enjoys and the level of ridership the extension can likely generate.  We are less convinced of extensions like the line to the South Coast given the low project estimates for people served and the extremely high costs.  So, why did the Institute focus on 2003-2013?  Three reasons.  First, it is reasonable to assume that commuter rail ridership continues to grow along with housing and economic growth, or will not decline in the absence of such growth.  (That assumption is especially reasonable in the case of the MBTA, which continued to expand track, with Greenbush and other lines.)  Second, I was referring to the dual factors that led to the 2003-2013 decline to make a point about fares; as the piece noted, “quickly raised fares and continued substandard service led, remarkably,” to the 2003-2013 decline. That is why the Institute is arguing that, after a period of significant system expansion, the T needs to make sure that the core system is working at a high level of service — with a focus on mundane things like investments in cars, electrical system, tracks, signalization, communications, etc. Third, we chose two non-recessionary years (2003 and 2013) to ensure that we were not cooking the books against the T.  (Ridership tends to drop during recessions.)
  4. On the MBTA’s rate of growth, Ofsevit is wrongWe have had this debate before, which can be found here.
  5. Ofsevit is also wrong on Pioneer’s view on investment in the MBTA. He says: “But for an institute that wants to cut investment in transit, those data are very inconvenient. So they choose to ignore them. Thus, his data are misleading at best, and borderline fraudulent at worst.”  Our public statement (February 12, 2015) demonstrates that Ari needs to learn how to read.  The statement’s call for a control board did get a lot of attention, but the second half of the statement was all about how the Institute believes that the state needs to assume $200 million of the MBTA’s debt, an in-kind way of increasing funding for the T.  Our view is that the state pushed the T to take on many projects (some good, some not) and that the state needs to unburden the T from what the state hath wrought.  Implicit in this call is our recognition that the T, even with all the reforms that we think it must undertake, needs more money.
  6. Ofsevit is wrong on the Housatonic rail line purchase.  He criticizes my sentence stating that the “MBTA Board of Directors inexplicably authorized $47 million to purchase the Pittsfield-to-Connecticut Housatonic line” with this line of reasoning: “Really? The T is buying rail lines in Berkshire County? That sounds a lot like a MassDOT project, and indeed it is. They’re related, certainly, but that’s not money coming from the T’s pot. This is just careless.”  I’m surprised that Ari did not know this, but think it is important to underscore that the MassDOT board was legislatively established to serve as both the MBTA board and the state transportation board.  Ari says that the MassDOT board and the MBTA board are “related.”  They are not just related; they are one and the same.  Most importantly, House 3882, the 2014 Transportation Bond Bill, authorized the Housatonic project as an option, not a mandate.  It is in the “funds may be used” subsection, under the “Rail and Transit Division” section of the bill, which is the same section that authorized a host of potential MBTA commuter rail projects including Boston to Cape Cod, South Coast Rail, etc.  The MBTA/MassDOT Board had innumerable options to spend the money on, but chose to fund the Housatonic project after it was rejected by the MassDOT Public Private Partnership Commission because it was financially unfeasible. According to press reports, Connecticut has not included its portion of the project in its long-range capital plan, meaning it will serve very few people, has no connection to NYC tourists, and was a waste of money.
  7. Ofsevit is wrong on bus maintenance.  He calls Pioneer’s work on bus maintenance “laughable.” In addition to the work to date on bus maintenance, the Institute has an additional study coming out soon on the topic.  He notes that T buses are “crammed with 75 passengers” that weigh the bus down, causing more rapid mechanical breakdowns.  An initial cut at the data (which we are still in the process of double-checking) shows average MBTA passengers per vehicle mile traveled very low when compared to peer transit agencies.
  8. Finally, Ofsevit is wrong in implying that the Institute has cherry-picked its comparisons.  We have done comparisons in a variety of ways and frequently have used the Federal Transit Authority’s own INTDAS “peer ranking” methodology.  No organization has gone out of its way to provide as many comparative lenses to look through in evaluating the MBTA’s performance relative to other systems.

Lots of assertions of “bad math,” 20-dollar words like “fraudulence,” and false attributions of positions to the Institute all get jam-packed in Ofsevit’s blog.  It would of course have been helpful for someone ladling out heaping servings of duplicity to disclose that the organization he works for provides Paul Revere Transportation (PRT), a vendor for the EZ-Ride shuttle.  PRT has a $1.9 million annual contract with the T.  (BTW, less than $250,000 comes through fares collected.)  A disclosure of that fact and self-interest would have been helpful, especially when Ofsevit is accusing others of being bought and paid for.

Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, visit Pioneer’s website, or check out our education posts at the Rock The Schoolhouse blog.