The transit riddle

We must delve into the causes of Metro Transit’s problems as detailed this afternoon by MPR’s Dan Olson.

Money for transit from the motor vehicle sales tax is down because of slumping auto sales. The latest numbers show Metro Transit is short $72 million over the next two and a half years, according to Dan.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the wisdom of financing things by taxing things you want to have less of — cigarettes or gas taxes in that post. Ideally, a proper public transit model would have everyone riding it, and getting rid of cars. But if you’re financed by the sale of automobiles, can you do both?

Ridership on Metro Transit has increased, but the system imposed a fare hike this year nonetheless. One solution for the current revenue shortfall? Another fare hike. At what point do you force people off mass transit?

More Twin Citians are riding public transit, getting squeezed in the wallet, and squished on the ride.

  • Tyler Suter

    The fact is, that once you have a car, it is cheaper to travel in your car. When I travel from home to my place of work and back, I have to pay about $2 (in terms of gas), while on the bus it typically costs me $4.50 (during peak rush hours – higher fares). I still ride the bus most of the time because it gives me a chance to shake the sleep off in the morning and read the paper, while also not requiring me to focus on driving. But with more rate hikes in the future, I may opt to take my car more often. In all honesty, I would still rather see another rate hike then further route cuts.

  • http://bluetintedglasses.wordpress.com MR

    Tyler,

    Costs are too variable between individual situations to say that it’s “cheaper” one way or the other.

    In my case, if I wanted to drive, I’d be paying $60/month (or more) for parking at work, plus gas costs and obviously wear-and-tear on my car. On the flip side, I pay $20/month for an unlimited MetroPass that I can use outside of work hours too. So it’s significantly cheaper for me to ride the bus, plus the benefits that you mentioned about getting to read the paper and shake off the sleep.

  • Michael in Minneapolis

    It is galling to see this part of our infrastructure get knocked about in bad times and in good. Meanwhile it costs no more to drive a car or truck down a highway in an econmic downturn. The tab fees for cars got sliced a few years ago and no one seems to suggest they should go up to help the state through this current state budgetary shortfall. At least that might discourage the behavior we want less of by making commuting by car more expensive.

    Could we hope that once the new Obama cabinet members on environment and energy make clear the dangers of unrestrained climate change and/or perhaps in the wake of the next ecocatastrophe the people of this great nation will be ready to embrace fundamental change?

  • http://bluetintedglasses.wordpress.com/ MR

    Just to clarify for non-transit users: my MetroPass is subsidized by my employer, and it provides unlimited rides on bus and/or light rail for as long as I choose to keep it and pay for it. Not all employers have that program, but thankfully mine does. There are other subsidized and non-subsidized pass programs that give frequent riders discounts too, but MetroPasses and uPasses (for U students) are the best deals out there.

  • Bob Collins

    I’m pretty sure the transportation bill last session raised license tab fees on new cars/trucks. So the gas tax went up, there was a sales tax increases, and the license tab fee was adjusted.

  • http://bluetintedglasses.wordpress.com/ MR

    Wasn’t there a proposal to tie license tab fees to vehicle weight, as it’s been shown that heavier vehicles cause more wear-and-tear to roads? Did that go anywhere?

  • bsimon

    “I wrote a few weeks ago about the wisdom of financing things by taxing things you want to have less of — cigarettes or gas taxes in that post.”

    Its a good question, though our political system does not reward politicians for being more thoughtful about the long term impacts of their votes. There are reasonable parallels between corporate managers that focus too much on short term profits at the expense of long term planning – to the detriment of their companies and, thus stockholders. Likewise, voters reward politicians for what they did this session, and don’t consider the long term impacts of our representatives’ actions. Niether the governor nor the legislators have been effective at identifying long-term goals for the state & establishing long-term funding in order to achieve those goals. Instead, they’ve dug the hole we’re in by focus nearly exclusively at short-term budget shortfalls, and have done no planning for the future.

    The transit funding problem that Bob outlines is merely exhibit A.

  • George

    I have chosen to ride the bus because it provides me with the FREEDOM to not need to be enslaved to the automobile.

    My wife and I are planning on getting rid of one of our autos next year but in the meantime we are weaning ourselves gradually perhaps some day not owning any auto. The savings will be huge: no car payments, no gas, no insurance, no parking costs.

    Some have complained about socialism in regard to subsidizing transit. My argument is that we need to privatize roads and start charging tolls when driving our automobiles across them.

    So — If we don’t want to fund transit…. bring on privatizing roads. That way we know when we reach a toll both on our way to work and we need to fork out $10 that the cost of riding the bus will seem like a bargain.

  • Bob Collins

    The bus is a bargain IF (a) they run on a regular schedule and (b) they TO where you live and work.

    I notice one of the solutions to their funding problems is more cutbacks in service. I should think it would be hard to have bus service ever be a substantive part of a transportation system if a strategy of making it less convenient is employed.

  • bsimon

    “I should think it would be hard to have bus service ever be a substantive part of a transportation system if a strategy of making it less convenient is employed.”

    Which gets back to the original point: There is a strong correlation between the need for transit & the loss of transit funding. In other words, when the economy stinks, more people turn to public transit, but when the economy stinks, transit funding goes down. Perhaps we elect too many lawyers and not enough economists.

  • http://Iwuzthinking.blogspot.com Bruce

    “The bus is a bargain IF (a) they run on a regular schedule and (b) they go TO where you live and work.”

    I agree with Bob’s points, but I don’t think they go far enough. Intangibles such as less pollution, reduced congestion and greater safety are enormous transit pluses.

    The essence of those two points is the idea that transit must be comprehensive. Unfortunately, ridership is lower precisely because currently it is not.

  • ryanT

    “At least that might discourage the behavior we want less of by making commuting by car more expensive.”

    And what else would you like me to do less of, my master? Perhaps you could provide us, your humble servants, with a list of behaviors you want more and less of. Then, my lord, we could serve you better. Everything for you, oh wisest one. Please, tell me how best to live my life, I beg of you please!

  • bsimon

    Bruce writes

    “Intangibles such as less pollution, reduced congestion and greater safety are enormous transit pluses.”

    The crux of the intangibles problem is that it is difficult to economically quantify them. Congestion impacts everybody, but acting as individuals we think we can save time by driving ourselves rather than use public transport, which exacerbates the congestion – everyone for themself ends up hurting everyone. As a sidebar, this is the economic theory briefly outlined in the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’. Moving on to air pollution – the same problem exists; it is nearly impossible to quantify the cost to society of the air pollution generated by me driving myself to work. Certainly, I do not bear that cost, so there is no incentive for me to change my behavior.

  • David Shanley-Dillman

    Change is coming, whether we are ready for it or not. Unfortunately, for us to undo the neglect and patronage of our previous leadership in urban/suburban planning, someone will have to pay the price of that change. Change is a concept that many embrace, until that is, they have to change the way that they live. And change is costly.

    MPR has brought out the issue that the proposed light transit rail will definitely impact their station building. Rate hikes are inevitable; and many will be inconvenienced by the construction and re-routing of streets. However, for change to occur, everyone will be asked to change and contribute. Don’t get caught in the argument that someone is paying less than you are for the change. Its not fair and it will never be; some will have to change or contribute more than others. Its just a fact of life.

    It’s like the weather in Minnesota; it impacts some more than others and there isn’t any way to change that fact. MPR may have to move their building and others may have to pay more fees and taxes. That’s the way it is; get over it and start being part of the solution and not the problem.

  • Bob Collins

    So MPR is supposed to lose a $58 million investment and just “get over it”?

    I hear that this is the price of change. I get it. But nobody has told me what downtown St. Paul looks like after LRT is in. What’s the big dream?

    Macy’s will — I think we all know — shutter the downtown St. Paul store as soon as their committment is up. MPR would have to move under the “get over it” scenario. They’re going to knock down another private business so that the LRT can make a turn on its way to the former Gillette plant which is now closed.

    So what’s the big end-product of forcing more businesses out of downtown St. Paul in order to save it. Save it for what?

    Is LRT supposed to make it easier to come to downtown St. Paul (and, if so, for what?) or easier to get out of it?