Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"I've Got My Fare, but Not a Nickel to Spare"

I couldn't resist putting another subject line reference to the song from which this blog gets its title, but I think it illustrates my point nicely. As reported before on this blog, Washington's WMATA is proposing a fare increase which they call "vital" to meeting Metro's funding needs. According to the agency, they need $109 million dollars to balance next year's budget. And that number includes an anticipated increase of funding of 6.5% from the constituent governments, without which service will need to be reduced or fares raised even higher. Washington remains the only rail system in the country with no dedicated funding. Essentially WMATA and all of the commuters in Washington are at the mercy of the budgeting process of each of the jurisdictions Metro serves. As irksome as the increase sounds, it appears that the metropolitan Washington region has no choice but to pony up to maintain and improve service.

Just who ponies up is perhaps the better question to ask however. Fare increases in our nation's capital are not the only ones around the country. Indeed all over the nation transit riders are facing increasing costs. Between 2005 and 2007 riders of the Los Angeles Metro, the Chicago L, Boston's T, Philadelphia's SEPTA, and New York's MTA, among others have faced fare hikes. Is it fair, indeed is it equitable, to charge transit riders more?

A national agenda based on reducing dependence on the automobile would seem to favor reducing fares as an incentive to get people off the roads. Of course we don't have such an agenda, although President Bush has affirmed the United States' commitment to reducing American dependence on foriegn oil in his State of the Union Speech every year since 2002 (inclusive). At the same time, the President has not encouraged Americans to find alternatives to driving; indeed he only encourages research to find alternative fuels. Still, in this age of global warming, peak oil, increasing pollution, and sprawl's incessant diet of farmland and natural habitat, it seems prudent to wean Americans of their addiction to the automobile.

Therefore it seems to make sense for Metro to propose a reduction in fares. Of course that kind of proposal is about as easy to implement as finding a seat on a Vienna-bound Orange Line train at 5:00. The main problem stems from the fact that Metro's riders pay for a whopping 79% of the cost of their ride, as reported by the Washington Post. The national average is around 30%, and Metro already charges the second-highest fare in the nation, after Bay Area Rapid Transit.

While Metro hasn't yet opened its doors to a reduction in the fare, many other cities are thinking about it. Why? It just makes sense. For years, both Seattle and Portland have offered "fareless squares" and Pittsburgh offers free travel on its light rail subway north of the Monongehela. Perhaps the most ambitious plan that's being talked about at the moment would give riders of the Bay Area's busiest transit system free access to the buses and trains. Muni, the oldest public transit operator in the country, shuffles commuters and locals around the city of San Francisco to the tune of over 700,000 trips each day. In March of 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Mayor Gavin Newsome's proposition to get rid of those pesky faregates. Of course, Muni's light rail system's overcrowding is as chronic as Metro's, and free travel would only worsen that. Of course, if more people took transit, perhaps the federal government would take transit expansion more seriously.

And as far-fetched as this idea may sound to people used to paying for their ride, the benefits are manifold. In the summer of 2006, transit systems all across the San Francisco Bay Region opened their faregates in an effort to "spare the air" six times. BART, the regional heavy rail provider, saw an increase of between 16,000 and 33,000 boardings (5-10%), but ridership on the Sausalito Ferry jumped 510%. Of course, free transit wouldn't be cheap. Just the cost of completely removing the fare on Washington's Metrorail and Metrobus would cost approximately $640 million annually according to their Fiscal Year 2007 Budget.

With the proposed increases in transit service in the region, it's not likely that we'll be missing the farecards anytime soon, however, this country stands to benefit from finding ways of increasing transit ridership. Among other things, it will reduce our dependence on oil (foriegn or otherwise), cut down on pollution in our cities, and increase safety on our roadways. Fewer cars commuting into our cities means less space devoted to parking and more space devoted to living. I doubt that cars will ever go away, and I'm not even sure that that would be a desireable alternative, but it seems likely that we will be forced to cut back on their usage in the event of more oil shocks regardless of our policy decisions now. From a law and order perspective, it would appear wise to take steps to provide alternatives sooner rather than later. We shouldn't forget that before the Second World War, America had the world's best transit systems. Today many of our great cities look amateur compared with even medium sized cities in Europe and Asia.

A good first step would be greater support for transit on all levels, including a reduction in the automobile subsidy. Many conservative thinkers will be hard pressed to remember, but before the federal government committed to building ribbons of asphalt across the country, transit was a profitable industry. Without federal subsidy to the automobile and policies detrimental to urban life (redlining, for instance), transit might still be profitable and "privatized." Fair is fair, it's time that transit recieved equal consideration, perhaps even greater consideration given the implications of continued reliance on the automobile for the majority of American travel. With additional governmental support, maybe the fare can be fair too.

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