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Cut transit fares to 25 cents

$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.

State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, represents Minnesota Senate District 54. This article originally appeared in the To the Point! newsletter on the Apple Pie Alliance website.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 07/24/2008 - 07:23 am.

    Sen. Marty has already run for Governor once. Things did not go well. And there is no reason that I can think of that a second attempt would fare any better.

  2. Submitted by Craig Westover on 07/23/2008 - 11:25 am.

    Al Franken could take a lesson in satire from Sen. Marty.

  3. Submitted by Mac Riddel on 07/22/2008 - 09:46 am.

    Brilliant!! The benefit of this would be huge and as Senator Marty points out, the cost would be low. The Twin Cities does need a lot more bus routes and if this legislation miraculously goes through, many more routes would be added due to demand. There would be less cars on the road, so less accidents, less smog, and the impact of the gas prices will be lessened.

    Where it currently fails miserably, Minnesota now has the chance to become a leader in mass transit. Who else can be as bold as the author to make this become a reality?

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 07/22/2008 - 01:32 pm.

    Senator Marty is also the force behind the Minnesota Health Plan for single-payer tax-supported health care that leaves no one without care while saving billions of dollars. (We’ll have it as soon as the propaganda calling it “socialized medicine” is no longer believed and we have a new governor. Soon, I hope.)

    How about …. Governor Marty??

  5. Submitted by Jacob Taintor on 07/25/2008 - 06:46 pm.

    Constructive comments, Craig and John! MinnPost encourages “broad-ranging, civil discussion from many points of view.” That’s civil discussion, not snide remarks from the comfort of your desk chair.

    Sen. Marty’s ideas are interesting, and I definitely agree about the foolishness of raising fares in a time when ridership is going through the roof. I think simply capping fares at what they are now, or maybe perhaps a slight price decrease, would suffice, however. Met Council isn’t there to make money, to be sure, but they still need to maintain some semblance of fiscal responsibility. Gas prices are hitting every industry hard – even government.

    Speaking of which, how beneficial it is that we’ve started a rail system that will prove to pay off in the next ten years.

  6. Submitted by Patrick Pfundstein on 07/25/2008 - 08:03 pm.

    The proposed fare increase seems weak at any rate. Gas prices are indeed up, but the expense increase is probably more than covered by the increase revenue from extra riders per trip.

    It would be fun to try the 25¢ (or even 50¢) for a couple of weeks to see the impact it would have on ridership and traffic.

  7. Submitted by John Olson on 07/26/2008 - 06:59 am.

    Jacob, my comment is based on FACT–Sen. Marty ran against then-Gov. Arne Carlson in 1994 and it was no contest (68% Carlson, 34% Marty). Look it up: (Our Secretary of State’s website doesn’t post the data back that far anymore, or it is in a very isolated location. Either way, I could not find the “official” data for 1994.)

    I do agree with you that a freeze on current fares would be preferable and more reasonable. They need the revenue to pay the salaries, electricity and heating just like the rest of us, so reducing their revenue stream to a trickle will only exacerbate the issue.

    I also agree that rail is–and should be–expanded in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. Yes, there will be large “up front” costs, but the Hiawatha line has proven that rail is a viable alternative to move large numbers of people in and out of the city on a daily basis. It has also helped revive the area along and near Hiawatha Avenue.

    The overall problem is the state’s budget deficit in the next biennium could be somewhere between $1 to $2 billion. To cover this, it is going to take substantial tax increases, reducing or eliminating a large number of programs, or a combination. Based on his legislative track record over the years, I simply don’t see Sen. Marty supporting widespread, large budget cuts.

    Finally, your comment, “..MinnPost encourages ‘broad-ranging, civil discussion from many points of view.’ That’s civil discussion, not snide remarks from the comfort of your desk chair..” also fails that same test Jacob. We can agree to disagree on some matters; but as you can see, you and I are in agreement on some, so don’t assume.

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