Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A study in editorial contrasts - bus edition

The Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times have long been held to be opposing voices when it comes to their editorials. The WSJ tends to hang a little to the right, and the Cap Times tends to hang a little to the left. And when the issues aren't necessarily of the partisan kind, they still do a good job of staying as far away from the others' opinion as possible.

Case-in-point: In the debate over whether or not to raise bus fares in the city of Madison to $2, the WSJ argues that yes, absolutely they should go up. The Cap Times, of course, argues the opposite. The language used in both editorials could not be more different. Whereas the WSJ uses words like "reasonable" and "modest" to describe the proposed rate hike, the Cap Times turns to descriptions like "dramatically" and "massive".

Personally, I think both editorials have a few worthwhile points. I also think they both fall flat in other areas.

In addressing a proposed amendment that would add a slight increase to property taxes to help avoid a rate hike, the WSJ complains that "It's time for those who actually ride the buses to contribute a bit more to maintain routes and improve service." While I certainly understand the concern of property taxpayers, I've got two issues with this. 1) Property taxpayers do ride the bus, too (shock! I know!). I know a few personally. 2) I don't think shifting the burden entirely onto the shoulders of frequent bus riders is the right thing to do. It is, in fact, quite insensitive to the facts about a lot of regular riders.

While it's true that a wide range of people from all different income brackets and walks of life use the bus, those who most rely on the service tend to be working class, or handicapped, or students (or any combination thereof). As a society, it behooves us to care for those most at risk. This must be balanced with personal accountability and responsibility on the part of those being helped, absolutely, but we cannot place the full financial burden of something as essential as the bus system on them and not expect it and them to crumble under the weight.

We should be encouraging more people to use mass transit, not vice versa. That means keeping it affordable, and finding other ways to fund it. Alders Brian Solomon and Satya Rhodes-Conway have proposed an amendment to the Mayor's budget that would do a lot (not all) to address this issue.

It would "delete the fare increase and save money in other ways. For example, Metro could bring in $40,000 in extra revenue by eliminating free rides on Clean Air Action days" (not sure how I feel about that, but if it helps keep fares low, it's worth considering). They also propose reallocating $100,000 in fuel savings, as apparently fuel costs were not as great as anticipated this year. The amendment also calls for an expansion of service, better marketing, and the implementation of new security programs at transfer points (which apparently involves a $25,000 cut, so that warrants further scrutiny).

While these measures may not be the end-all-be-all of the problem, they are a good example of the kind of creative and innovative efforts to reorganize so that the burden is not on the riders themselves.

Back over at the Cap Times editorial, while I generally agree with their ultimate point, their doom and gloom language does feel a little over the top. While I, and others, strongly suspect that a rate increase would have adverse effects on riders and ridership, until actual studies on the subject are done, no concrete conclusions can really be reached. Still, rather alarmist-ly, they ask:
Did right-wing critics of mass transportation take charge, in coalition with global warming deniers? Are the fantasists who would have us believe that our bus system is underutilized and unnecessary pulling a silent coup? Has a once progressive city suddenly forgotten that mass transit decisions go to the very heart of questions about equity and access for all to employment, education and culture?
I really don't get the impression that this all stems from some vast right-wing conspiracy. Rather, it strikes me as an honest debate over how to best address the severe budget shortfalls the city is facing. While there are some on the pro-hike side of the argument who seem to think that bus riders are all lazy liberal professors, the majority, I believe, are really trying to do the right thing. It's a complex issue, and one without an easy answer.

Ultimately, I do believe that it's in the best interests of the city to make sure public transportation is as affordable and convenient as possible. People rely on it to get to work, school, and other commitments. An employed, educated citizenry benefits everyone.

1 comment:

George H. said...

I think this is a conspiracy, but a conspiracy to raise the rate by half that proposed. Present the extremes, then settle for what you really want. I wonder why there is no swell of bus riders to protest an increase of any size?
Equally as onerous is raising the fine for alternate side parking violations when there isn't any snow. (emphasis on those last four words, please) Who is hurt? If they don't have a place off the street to park a car, there is surely less of a chance they can pay a large fine. It's a tax on the poor. Now, if a person with a car downtown could consider an alternative and ride a safe bus to a logical destination at a reasonable price on a reliable schedule, perhaps that car wouldn't be necessary, and neither would the alternate side parking with no snow tickets. . .

The Lost Albatross