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Monday, September 15, 2008

Transit More Popular, Expensive, Than Ever

posted by on September 15 at 17:59 PM

This morning, Metro announced it will be adding new bus routes and more frequent service to keep up with rising transit demand, and “revising” bus service for 22 other routes. That’s great news if you ride any of the 19 routes that are being upgraded, not so great if you live in certain parts of the city and like to take the bus late at night (several late-night trips are being cut), or use one of the bus stops that is being eliminated. Overall, however, the changes appear to add up to a pretty substantial improvement.

That’s a good thing, right? Yes and no. More Metro service should, in theory, improve the bus-riding experience, because buses will be less crowded and, again in theory, more reliable. The more frequently your bus arrives, the less likely you are to be seriously inconvenienced when a bus shows up late or doesn’t come at all. And the less crowded the buses are, the easier it is for them to stay on schedule.

On the other hand, all those service upgrades don’t come free. With gas prices soaring, Metro has already had to raise fares 25 cents, and another 50-cent increase is in the works. Higher fares mean lower ridership, which means fewer revenues for things like new bus routes. Which leads to crowded buses, unreliable schedules, and a less pleasant bus experience… which leads all those new bus riders to start thinking, maybe it’s worth it to take the car after all.

All around the country, the story is similar: Transit agencies forced to choose between raising fares or laying off workers and reducing service. In Miami, the choice is between raising fares 50 cents and firing 700 workers and reducing transit service by more than 4 million miles a year. In Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority is removing all the seats from some of its trains, just to squeeze more passengers in. And in 85 percent of US transit agencies, capacity—just having enough room to hold all the riders—is a problem, with four out of ten agencies saying they now have to turn passengers away.

One possible solution, suggested here, is for transit agencies to ask Congress for transit funding from the federal Highway Trust Fund, which primarily pays for roads and bridges. (The US secretary of transportation has already asked Congress to put another $8 billion into the fund, but that would only pay for roads, not transit.) An infusion of cash could allow transit agencies to expand service (and maintain their current bus and train fleets) without raising fares or firing workers. As the writer notes:

Transit provides an energy-efficient and affordable option for a lot of Americans right now. If we respond to their need by cutting bus lines, packing transit cars to the gills and ordering steep fare increases, we will risk losing critical public support and ridership at a time when our transit systems have their best opportunity in 60 or more years to position themselves for long-term growth.

RSS icon Comments


Leave it to ECB to find something negative in what could have been a positive story, when her transit is finally tipping her way.

Posted by calvin | September 15, 2008 6:12 PM

Very interesting story in the NYTimes today about a city whose transit system is cutting fares, thus increasing ridership and ultimately making more income. "The Rochester system, which expects to run a surplus for the third year in a row, has been able to reduce its one-ride fare in part by eliminating some low-trafficked routes, avoiding debt and aggressively raising revenues from other sources. The fare fell to $1 from $1.25 on Sept. 1."

Check it out.

Posted by Gurldoggie | September 15, 2008 6:46 PM

Demand increases for normal good / service => good/service becomes more profitable

Demand increases for transit => transit becomes less profitable


Posted by bb | September 15, 2008 7:31 PM

It not only costs riders money -- it costs the Taxpayers money as every mass transit rider is heavily subsidized. Sounder riders add an additional $40,000 per traingoer to our burden.

Luckily oil dropped to $90 today and will continue plummeting, letting those lazy bums on buses go back to driving SUVs that are laying thirstily in the garage.

Posted by John Bailo | September 15, 2008 7:39 PM

On a somewhat related matter, I was driving up Queen Anne hill today (yes, I drove...sorry), and I was stuck behind 3 buses right in a row--two #3's and one #4. I looked in my rear view mirror, and there was a #4 right behind me.

Posted by sleestak | September 15, 2008 7:58 PM

I somehow doubt that Metro's rider projection figures fail to take into account the disincentive to use public transit that comes with an increased fare. Rather than speculate, why not ask about the planning that is going into their fare increases? If there's a better alternative, short of Obama finding federal dollars while trying to balance the budget during a recession/ depression, that would be worth reporting.

Posted by Trevor | September 15, 2008 8:01 PM

Get rid of the bums-ride-free area. One price increase that can't possibly have any negative impact on revenue whatsoever is to start charging for a free service.

Posted by kinaidos | September 15, 2008 8:24 PM

I say get rid of the stupid "ride free" zone and charge riders for transfers like every other city does. That right there should increase funding by +40% straight out.

All the ride free zone does is confuse new riders (Pay when you get on? Off? Save a transfer to show the driver AGAIN if you ride through the downtown area to the other side?) and encourage the homeless to ride for the free air-contitioning.

Also - charge a fee for peoples' F-cking dogs. They take up space too.

Posted by Colton | September 15, 2008 8:53 PM

@3, diesel prices

Posted by bellevue & belmont | September 15, 2008 9:52 PM

"It not only costs riders money -- it costs the Taxpayers money as every mass transit rider is heavily subsidized. Sounder riders add an additional $40,000 per traingoer to our burden."

I think what you mean to say was that " not only costs the taxpayers who ride mass transit money--it costs the taxpayers who don't ride mass transit money..."

Virtually all public transit runs at a deficit, by design. The benefit that it brings the entire community is greater than the per-rider subsidy.

Posted by Tiktok | September 15, 2008 10:43 PM

Dude, I think they're discontinuing the #8 bus - I can't find ANY schedule of it past Sept 20th .....

Posted by Colton | September 15, 2008 10:52 PM

Hmmm, and I seem to remember duking it out (figuratively, of course) with a bunch of car-haters on Slog not too very long ago about why having gas go up to $4/gallon was a bad thing not just for drivers, but for the economy as a whole and working and middle-class folks in particular.

Are you enjoying those significantly higher food prices, too?

Posted by Mr. X | September 15, 2008 10:58 PM

My understanding is that the $8bil transfer from the USA general fund is needed to shore-up the Highway Trust Fund which is insolvent. The money has already been spent. These funds are needed for disbursement to contractors.

There won't be any hog slop for public transportation unless Halliburton or Blackwater starts making trains and need a market to dump them.

Posted by Curmudgeon | September 16, 2008 12:01 AM

You know, if they listened to ECB and banned wheelchairs on transit, they'd be faster.

After all, if people at night don't need bus service, disabled people who slow down express bus service for impatient riders don't need bus service.

(now where did I put my /sarcasm key ....)

Posted by Will in Seattle | September 16, 2008 12:12 AM

"Higher fares mean lower ridership, which means fewer revenues..."

This is an over-simplification and simply false. Example: if you sell a bottle of water for $1 and 10 people buy it, your revenue is $10. If you raise the price to $1.20 and only 9 people buy it, your revenue is $10.80. Raising prices may mean lower sales, but not necessarily lower revenues.

Posted by SeattleBrad | September 16, 2008 8:40 AM

@ Colton. Not every city charges for transfers. The MTA in NYC certainly doesn't. Riders have one free transfer from bus to bus or bus to subway (or vice versa) for up to two hours after the initial card swipe. If only Seattle's system was that good...

Posted by Bus Bitch | September 16, 2008 9:00 AM

cut the amount of stops on Madison for the 11 out of downtown. seriously, there is a stop every block for at least 3 blocks by planned parenthood

Posted by Bellevue Ave | September 16, 2008 9:43 AM

Why would we want to put federal road money towards transit? This is Amerika. Cars uber alles.

And besides. The whole point of government isn't to find solutions. It is to make sure there are no public and common solutions so that everyone has to fend for themselves and therefore reinforce the mainstream, neoliberal doctrine.

Why give anyone hope that "help is on the way?"

Posted by Buckywunder | September 16, 2008 11:49 AM

The Ride Free Area is a huge revenue loss. It isn't just the stinky bums- but the tourists and ties n' suits. The buses congest quite heavily in the RFA during lunch hours- as much so as peak hours. When the bus leaves the RFA they are quite empty.

I have heard - one too many times- from tourists how they love that they don't have to pay to go anywhere in Seattle (major landmarks.) Everywhere I have visited, transportation was at my cost- not the local taxpayers. I still went.

If some business person can hop on a bus from 2nd and Seneca to 6th and Pine to blow thirty dollars on lunch, then why can't they pay $1.50 for bus fare?
Base fare will have increased by $0.75 on Jan 2009 from $1.25 on Jan 2008. Thats more then 50%! So basically, the smuck working, that pays their fare to work and back is paying an entire additional fare. Why should those that use mass- transit subsidize downtown business interests? Granted they payed for most of the tunnel. So either retain the tunnel as the only RFA or sell tokens at a significantly reduced cost to these businesses to distribute to their patrons.

Case in point- the 99 street car is entirely fare free. Exactly whom commutes from 8th and Jackson down to the Olympic sculpture park? And even if there are those that do, why can't they pay for their transit like everyone else?

Posted by Kat | September 16, 2008 11:56 AM

The Highway Trust Fund has had a Mass Transit Account since April 1, 1983, established by the Highway Revenue Act of 1982. It is currently funded by a 2.86 cent tax on each gallon of motor fuel. Each time there has been an increase in the amount of gas tax going into the Highway Trust Fund—1990, 1993 and 1997—20 percent of the increase has been allocated to the Transit Account and 80 percent to the Highway Account.

Posted by davidLBC | September 16, 2008 12:36 PM

Isn't 8 billion less than what we spend in a month in Iraq?

I wouldn't say that we need to take more state and federal money from Roads, which are already deteriorating. Why is the war a sound investment, but keeping our own infrastructure up isn't? How many billion dollar bridges would the Annual budget for the Iraq war pay for.

Erica, has Metro said anything about expanding our electric trolleybus routes? Though that's not something that can be done this week, it does use cheaper hydro electricity, not diesel fuel. But I've not seen anything about this in any of the media. It's a lot cheaper I know than Nickels' streetcars, but maybe there other problems or costs with expanding it?

Posted by Steven Bradford | September 16, 2008 1:21 PM

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