For the best, I’d say.
Free fares appear to be a hard sell for Houston area transit officials, who said while they are open to exploring discounts, people boarding buses and trains will need to fork over $1.25 for the foreseeable future.
After a comprehensive analysis by Metropolitan Transit Authority staff, transit board members said removing fares from the system actually would increase agency costs by creating a need for more buses and operators, potentially to the tune of $170.6 million annually.
“It is just not feasible to do free fares,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said, echoing others on the board and in the transit agency.
Metro’s analysis concluded that ridership would jump from 86 million trips a year to an estimated 117 million if fares were eliminated altogether. Even offering free rides only during peak hours could boost ridership to around 100 million, the study found.
Those new riders, however, would come at a big cost, said Julie Fernandez, the transit agency’s lead management analyst. To handle the demand, Metro would need nearly 500 more vehicles, mostly buses, and 415 new operators. Such a sizable jump in vehicles and employees would require the agency to build a new bus operating facility to complement the existing six bus depots.
Even preparing the transit system for free rides would take four years, Fernandez said, adding, “it takes time to order new buses.”
The cost of going free prompted many Metro board officials to conclude it was not likely.
“It is easy to look at it and say ‘OK, it is such a small part of our budget’ but it is really more complicated than that,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.
See here and here for the background. Metro says it will consider some other options like free fares for schoolchildren (they get discounted fares now), and Metro Chair Carrin Patman said this was a useful exercise while free-fare-advocate Tory Gattis said he was satisfied with the study Metro did. I agree this was worth considering, but in the end this was clearly the right call. Maybe a smaller version of this makes sense, maybe sometime in the future it makes sense, but for now Metro should focus on other things.
Despite the benefits of increased ridership, many of those urging Metro to expand service oppose the elimination of fares.
“When people don’t pay for something, there’s no value to it,” Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, told Metro board members in December.
LINK works with low-income and minority communities to increase transit offerings, something Blair said could be stunted if Metro were to give up the roughly $70 million in annual fare revenues. Such a move also could delay efforts to expand service or add routes long-sought by some voters that overwhelmingly supported Metro’s $3.5 billion transit plan in November.
“Metro will risk the overwhelming support you have earned,” Blair said.
I agree completely.