[A bus rider standing impatiently in the street while waiting for the #63 bus in Saint Paul.]
I didn't want to write this post. You'd think that now, of all times, our progressive state government would be trying to prepare for the future. Oil prices are at all time highs, and promise to get much, much higher. All the signs point to the fact that climate change is happening faster than ever, and we live in a society that spends vastly too much of its energy on transportation costs (consuming 25% of the world's oil production). Now, more than ever, we should be trying to get people out of gas-guzzling, carbon-spewing cars, and into more sustainable modes of transportation.
Yet, I read today that the Met Council (predictably) raised city-wide transit fares, at this moment when people have reached a tipping point, and are more willing than ever before to consider sustainable transportation:
Bus and light-rail riders will have to pony up another quarter starting Oct. 1 after the Metropolitan Council voted today to increase fares to combat rising fuel prices.
Another 50-cent jump is possible next year.
Opponents have said the increase will hurt those riders already struggling to make fare, as well as riders on Metro Mobility, a service for people with disabilities, who will now have to pay 50 cents more per trip.
The fare increase is meant to erase an anticipated $15 million shortfall in Metro Transit's 2009 operations budget.
Mary Hill Smith, head of the transportation committee, said her group tried to balance the needs of riders and the Metro Transit budget when proposing the hike.
"I don't think that any of us are particularly happy to raise fares now," she said. "I hope the community at large understands this is something we do with a heavy heart."
This comes after a long process of debate, and some fierce lobbying by the pro-transit community about possible alternatives to raising transit fares. A while back, Transit for Liveable Communities put out the following statement about alternatives to raising fares:
With high gas prices and a slow economy, transit should be as affordable as possible. Further, there are alternatives to raising fares. Options include:
- The Metropolitan Council’s rainy day fund has $19 million in its reserves. Tapping half of this fund would buy time for the 2009 legislature to decide whether fare increases or service cuts are appropriate or needed.
- Three percent more of the revenues from the motor vehicle sales tax (some of the funding that currently goes toward funding metropolitan trunk highways) could go to transit in the Twin Cities region. This would require a statutory change during the 2009 legislative session.
- Increase the regional sales tax to raise sufficient funding to cover the gap Institute a new tax on off-street parking
- Increase the metro area property tax for transit and target this new money to transit operations (previously, transit operations were funded this way).
All of these ideas are alternatives that would shift the structural landscape within which we all make choices every day.
In other words, each day we ask ourselves: How should I get around? Every few years, we ask ourselves, where should I live?
Government has a huge role to play in shifting the economic incentives at play for both of these questions. How much will it cost to drive your car to work? How much does it cost to park, pay for gas, get insurance, get your license and registration? How much does it cost (in time and money) to take the bus?
The government has a hand in all of these questions, and considering the huge expenditures for energy costs, pollution regulation, conservation initiatives, and freeway construction, and policing, the amount of money that state and regional governments throw towards the transit system is really small potatoes.
That's why I love Roseville State Senator John Marty's almost-competely-ignored proposal to drop transit fares down to 25 cents. Here's what he wrote:
This proposal reminds me a lot of another failed proposal that would have reduced the New York City transit fare down to ZERO dollars, in exchange for a toll on private cars running through midtown Manhattan.
The cost is not as much as some would think. Cutting fares for Metro Transit from the current $1.50 to $2.75 down to a flat 25-cent fare for buses and LRT would obviously reduce fare-box revenue. But the public already pays well over three-fourths of the cost of the transit system, so lower fares take away only a small portion of the revenue. In fact, with the jump in ridership, the public cost of each individual ride would drop significantly. (A bus or rail car costs virtually the same amount to operate whether it has 15 or 50 passengers.)
Alternatives to this proposal are not cheap. The Met Council's proposed fare increase is projected to bring in about $7 million more per year. Even so, it projects a revenue shortage of $30 to $40 million per year by 2011. On top of that, the cost of expanding roads and highways to handle the growing congestion has a price tag in the billions, not the millions that transit improvements and fare cuts would require. Also, this cost analysis excludes the environmental costs of driving more cars and building more roads. The 25-cent-fare proposal would ultimately save taxpayers money.
There are other benefits of the 25-cent fare. It would provide much-needed savings for low-income people struggling with high food and energy costs. The enhanced service to handle the surge in passengers would make it easier for seniors and others who rely on transit to get to their doctor, the store, their church or wherever they need to go.
Maybe I'm hopelessly naive, but Marty's proposal would seem to me to be a move of political genius. You'd trade a few griping "taxpayer's league" folks for a ton of new, urban riders on the city's transit systems. It would greatly please all the environmental, poverty, and energy constituencies, at the expense of a few state dollars.
And, that's why, of course, the Met Council had no interest in keeping the lid on transit fares. The entire council is stacked with Pawlenty appointees, and he can remove them at will. They know where their bread is buttered, and trading the Met Council "rainy day fund" for a little State Budget breathing room is a terrible move for a Governor who has been hell bent on maintaining every possible political advantage.
Unfortunately, at the moment, we have a state executive who does not have the state's best interests at heart. That extra quarter is going to sit heavily in my pocket for the next six months. Meanwhile, the #63 bus schedule was slashed a few years ago, part of Metro Transit's periodic budget cuts. How long will we have to wait until our government starts making sense?