Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Will hiking bus fares hurt more than help?

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz today announces his proposed 2009 city operating budget, calling it a "share the pain" plan, reflecting the increasingly difficult economic times we're all living in. It does look like he's honestly trying to make things work as best they can for everyone without dramatically cutting services, and I applaud him for being willing to make such tough decisions.

So far, most of the proposed budget looks fairly reasonable, though I've yet to see anything more detailed than a bullet pointed list of its features.

The one thing that does have me concerned so far, though, is the proposal to raise bus fares by fifty cents, up to two dollars per ride. There is also mention of how the plan also "Doubles funding to $80,000 to help those with low-incomes" but I'm not entirely sure what that means. That's important, because while it's good that the plan calls for expanding service, the good that does may be offset by an increase in the base fare. People working with tight personal budgets often rely on the bus to get them to and from their jobs. Fifty cents may not seem like much to some of us lucky souls, but for someone who uses the bus on a regular basis just to get to work, it adds up right quickly.

I can't help but wonder if it shouldn't be possible to expand service without hiking rates, especially since ridership is at all-time highs. It's a trend we're seeing nationwide, largely due to the increased cost of gas, and most experts seem to agree that the trend will only continue in the long-run. Shouldn't this mean that Metro is taking in more revenue from riders? And shouldn't that help to offset some of the costs associated with the proposed rate hike? I'm asking this honestly, because I don't know the precise details of how things work at Metro and what everything costs.

I'm concerned, though, because if there does absolutely need to be a rate increase, it absolutely should be coupled with some sort of program to help lower income riders.

I drove for Women's Transit Authority for a year, shortly before it went under, and had the chance to get to know a number of hard working women who relied on our (free) service to get to and from (often several) jobs. They were also big bus riders, though had many seemingly legitimate complaints about route cuts and overall service. Many had been entirely left behind when Metro retooled how it ran a number of years ago (the switch from lettered to numbered routes). One woman who worked at St. Mary's Care Center out on Madison's west side had called Metro to see if they picked up anywhere nearby, only to be assured that there was a bus stop "just about a mile away" - a bus stop, it turned out, that was over a mile away over an unlit hill in the middle of the country, and one that didn't run late enough to pick her up from her second shift job.

I understand that the buses can't feasibly serve everyone all of the time, but it seems like there are currently holes that could be filled. And it seems reasonable that we should be putting some extra resources into helping expand and better the service of something that helps ease congestion on our roads, lower the amount of pollutants being spewed into the air, and provides a lower cost way for people on smaller incomes to get around.

Heck, maybe we could take some of the money from the proposed I-94 expansion and put it toward Metro service instead. It's an idea, anyway.

I'll be curious to read a more detailed report of the mayor's budget, and what exactly that money to "help those with low incomes" is for. I just want to make sure we keep in mind how difficult even a fifty cent increase in fares can be for a lot of the people who rely the most on the service.

UPDATE TO ADD: Brenda Konkel posted the slightly more specific ways in which the higher rates would be used (she's also pretty miffed about the budget cutting funding for Community Services agencies, and I don't blame her). I'm still trying to find out more information about this supposed "Transit for Jobs" program that's mentioned, and what exactly they're doing to defray costs for lower income riders. Plus, it's looking like higher fuel costs aren't really the main reason for the increase. Interesting.


On a somewhat related note, I was very excited to read this article in the Chicago Tribune. It notes how Congress recently passed, by a veto-proof margin, the Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act, which, while spurred on by the recent tragic Amtrak accident in California, also includes some major provisions for expanding rail service nationwide:
The landmark legislation, which the White House said President George W. Bush will sign, calls for almost doubling the federal funding provided to Amtrak—about $13.1 billion over five years.

Among other precedents, it authorizes $3.4 billion to create high-speed passenger rail corridors and provide rail capital-improvement grants to states.

The ambitious project proposed for the Midwest would cover 3,000 miles in nine states. All lines would radiate from a hub in downtown Chicago. The cost of a fully completed Midwest network is estimated at almost $8 billion.


Planners envision the line running from Chicago up through Milwaukee, Madison, the Twin Cities and eventually Duluth, while separate routes from Chicago would extend east to Detroit, Cleveland and Cincinnati.
Can I just tell you how excited I am about that? I have been chomping at the bit for passenger rail service between Chicago and Madison, at the very least, ever since moving here. I would seriously use this about once a month, if not more, and I know a lot of other folks who feel the same way. It's good to see that lawmakers and others are finally sitting up and taking notice that we've become far too reliant on cars in this nation, and that good, reliable train and bus service should be just as, if not more so, funded as highway construction and the like. It's a shame that it's taken skyrocketing fuel costs for this to happen, but better late than never, I figure.

h/t Fearful Symmetries.

("ssshhh, baby listen, hear the train?")


Emily said...

Over the last 3 years, gasoline costs have gone from about $2.50/gal to about $3.50 or $4/gal. Diesel is worse, and natural gas is a wee bit better. So unless the bus system in Madison was making a healthy profit on the ridership of 3 years ago, it is quite reasonable that increased use would not make up for the cost increase on fuel.

Still, hiking fares *will* hurt more than it helps. For almost any trip I'd care to make, I need one or two transfers. If I try to combine trips, it gets even worse. So for a lot of bus dependent riders, fares will add up very quickly.

It doesn't really help that there are no discount fare options. I can't buy tokens. I can't get a 10 or 20 ride fare card. I can't buy a day pass or a weekend pass. The only choice is a monthly pass, and that pass is priced so that you don't break even until you've commuted to work every day for a month.

Palmer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Palmer said...

Wrong link:


1 day pass:

10 day pass:


On Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, up to two adults and four children (age 17 and under) may ride the bus all day long for $6.

Did you actually look for discount fair options?

michael d said...

I'd be interested to see numbers on how many riders they'd expect to lose by raising the fares. How many would they have to lose to offset the gain from the raised fares? How many more would they have to lose to have to cut routes due to financial shortfall?

On the other side, how many riders will they gain by increasing routes? Are the route they're adding ones that will gain riders?

What is the societal cost of increasing the cost for people to take the bus? People who choose to commute to work for environmental reasons probably won't change their minds, but those who do it for financial ones will have to reconsider. Given the length of my commute and the fuel efficiency of my motorcycle, gas would have to hit more than $6/gallon before I'd be breaking even, and that's buying 10 ride passes pre-tax.

The Lost Albatross