by Dick Lemieux – April 12, 2014

A front-page April Fools Day (2014) Monitor article covered a report that recommends continuation of pilot bus service between Concord and Manchester.

Based on demographic, employment and survey data, consultants estimated initial ridership at 125-220 passengers per day, growing to 180-320 in five to 10 years, and concluded there is “the existence of a market for transit service between Concord and Manchester.”

Proving its own estimates inflated by 300-500 percent, the same report documents actual ridership peaking at 52 passengers per day in October 2013, falling to 37 in December, and averaging just 43 during the first six months of Concord Express pilot service.

To put that into perspective, 22 round trips a day, out of a total population of 152,000, amounts to one in 6,900 residents using it daily. At that rate, the average resident would take a round trip on the bus once every 19 years.

In 2013, an average of 68,144 vehicles per day passed through the Hooksett tolls, meaning that bus ridership accounted for less than 0.08 percent of the traffic in the corridor.

The average bus occupancy rate started at 1.3 passengers per bus in July, peaked at 2.2 in October, then fell back to 1.7 in December. Yes, per bus.

Based on such metrics, the consultants conclude, “that the time for this transit link . . . may finally have arrived.”

If 43 passenger-trips per day (and falling) is considered a market for transit service, one wonders just how low ridership would need to be, for proponents to conclude that there is not a market for bus service in the corridor. How about 30? Fifteen? Ten? Two?

Unswayed by reality, proponents are proposing to continue the service – with a brand new bus, no less. Based on their estimates of ridership, the consultant predicts fares would “potentially” (roughly meaning “in your dreams”) cover 50 percent of the estimated operating cost. Based on observed ridership, it would probably be closer to 15 percent. There are no plans at all to recover the estimated $100,000-$350,000 capital cost of the new bus.

Where would the rest of the money come from? “In an ideal world,” says the report, funding would come from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program, which “has the flexibility to fund both highway improvements as well as transit programs, including capital and operating expenses.” Matching funds would come from “toll credits” – i.e., more highway money – “so that no additional local cash (would be) required.”

So, in the “ideal world” of transit consultants, nearly empty buses constitute a market and are subsidized with 100 percent highway revenue – the same highway revenue the real world Department of Transportation says it doesn’t have enough of to maintain highways and bridges.

Isn’t anybody paying attention to the money flying out the back door, while the Legislature is putting on the full-court press to rake more gas tax money in through the front door?

Let’s watch to see what the governor and Executive Council do with this proposal. If they approve using federal gas tax money for a documented boondoggle like the Concord Express, there is no hope that they will be better stewards of revenue from state gas taxes.

And don’t even get me started on the proposal now in the Legislature to start yet another new bus service between Claremont and Lebanon (HB 650), a pair of cities with a combined population one sixth that of Concord and Manchester!

What could be next? A subway to Keene? A monorail to Lancaster? A passenger train to Boston? Stay tuned. There’s a 99 percent probability that before next April Fools Day, some consultant is going to tell us there is a market for one or more of the above.