$4-per-gallon gas is causing great hardship, but Minnesota can turn that problem into an opportunity to protect the environment, reduce traffic congestion, and help low- and middle-income people cope, simply by substantially cutting public transit fares.
Unfortunately, just when we should be increasing bus and rail ridership, the Metropolitan Council proposes to move us in the opposite direction by raising fares. Boosting fares reduces ridership, while cutting fares increases it.
The Met Council’s decision to raise fares due to higher fuel prices and insufficient funding is not surprising, but it is disappointing. When these higher fares reduce the number of riders, it simultaneously increases the number of auto trips, which in turn produces more congestion and wear and tear on roads.
What if we tried a bold new approach to transit and transportation issues? Imagine what would happen if we were to reduce all transit fares to 25 cents per ride. Experience from around the country shows that ridership would soar. The biggest problem with such a change would be that Minnesota’s transit systems would be unable to handle all the passengers.
A problem we’d love to have
Too many transit riders? If we are concerned about too many cars on the road and the congestion and environmental harm from those cars, this sharp increase in bus and rail passengers is a problem we’d love to have. Transit systems would need to add routes and increase frequency. And with more routes and more frequent service, ridership would increase even more.
The Twin Cities, where three-quarters of the population live in the suburbs, lacks sufficient suburb-to-suburb transit. One creative constituent proposed to the Met Council that we add a series of bus routes on the I-494/694 beltway. During rush hour they could use the freeway shoulders to bypass congestion.
Additional transit corridors and more frequent service would be needed throughout the state. As new buses are added, the use of hybrid and clean fuel technology would provide even greater environmental benefits.
This proposal would require a significant increase in state support for transit systems to make up for their lost fare revenue and higher costs. But it would be the least expensive way to handle growing congestion and reduce auto emissions.
Only small portion of revenue would be lost
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.
An unbelievably timid goal
The Met Council has the unbelievably timid goal of doubling transit ridership by 2030. Under that scenario the increase in riders wouldn’t even keep up with population growth, and road congestion would continue to get worse. Minnesota’s transit systems are already behind those in many other states and further yet behind those in other countries.
If we follow this bold vision instead, we can make things better, likely doubling ridership in four years — and then doubling it again four years later.
The Met Council is headed in the wrong direction. It should cancel the fare increase now, and prepare to go to the Legislature in January to get funding to cut fares. To prime this discussion I introduced legislation, Senate File 3888, which would establish a flat 25-cent fare for bus and rail in public-transit systems in communities throughout Minnesota. This legislation would not solve our transportation woes, but it would be a big step forward.