Today, the Metropolitan Transit Authority reports slightly under 300,000 daily "boardings." Because of transfers, it is a little bit of guesswork to determine how many commuters are actually using transit. But it is probably something in the 120,000-130,000 range. For every commuter we can convince to take a train or bus to work, we get one car off our roads. That means less congestion and fewer emissions and collisions. Clearly a good thing.
Metro has developed a far-ranging, multibillion-dollar plan dubbed Metro Solutions that it hopes will increase transit ridership. Phase 2 of that plan consists of five light rail lines and will cost about $2.2 billion. The ultimate cost will undoubtedly be higher. Metro projects that its Phase 2 lines will have about 140,000 daily boardings. However, these lines will replace existing bus service along the same routes, so not all of the boardings will represent an increase in transit ridership. The net increase on the Main Street line from switching to light rail has been about 19 percent.
If this ratio holds on the Phase 2 lines, we should pick up an increase in daily boardings of about 20,000 to 30,000 or something like 10,000 to 12,000 new transit riders. This is a very small increase compared to well over 1 million daily commuters in Houston.
The traffic models indicate that this relatively small increase will be about offset by the lost street lanes the rail lines will use and the scores of new street level crossings. As a result, there will be no meaningful reduction in traffic congestion from the Phase 2 lines.
Is there another way to increase transit ridership and do it now? I think there may be. Make it free.
Now, before you think I am proposing we give away the store, you need to know that Metro recovers a very small percentage of its costs through fares. In fiscal year 2006, Metro only collected about $54 million in fares compared to $435 million in operating expenses, or only about 12 percent. That is because Metro gets the overwhelming majority of its funds from a 1 percent sales tax. And Metro is currently enjoying a boom in its sales tax revenues. In the past two years, sale tax receipts have increased by approximately $84 million and are on track this year to increase almost another $40 million. Metro currently is sitting on nearly $400 million in cash, receivables and short term investments.
Also, Metro spends about $5 million a year collecting its fares and advertising, expenses that could be dramatically reduced if fares were eliminated. So eliminating fares would probably only cost us around $50 million annually.
If we assume a 50 percent increase in ridership, we would pick up about 50,000-60,000 new transit riders each day. This increase is easily more than four times that projected for Phase 2 and at a fraction of the cost. The operating costs alone for Phase 2 are projected to be $64 million, well above what we would lose from eliminating fares, not to mention repaying the principal and interest on whatever portion of the $2.2 billion construction cost is not covered by the FTA.
More importantly, this could happen immediately. Phase 2, even by Metro's optimistic projections, is four to five years away. If we realized a 50 percent increase in ridership, some other advantages would be:
- The new Metro commuters would save about $100 million per year in commuting costs. Current Metro customers would save the $50 million they are now paying in fares. That is $150 million annually in the pockets of working families, many of whom have been facing increasingly difficult financial circumstances with rising gas prices.
- A reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of about 500 million pounds a year with corresponding decreases in nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds.
- A reduction in the traffic congestion for the rest of the folks still on the road. The actual reduction is impossible to predict with any precision and it would vary substantially by roadway.
- More Metro buses would run on schedule. Metro bus drivers tell me that many of their delays come from fare "hassles" as riders get on the bus, e.g., not having the correct change, not being able to find their wallet, etc.
One more point is that it's not just about offering an alternative to one's commute to work. I can't take the Main Street line to work, but I can and do for other purposes, and when I do that's one less car on the streets contributing to congestion and pollution. A more comprehensive light rail network will make it easier for people who live in the suburbs to take commuter buses to work, because they will feel like they can still get places they need to go during the day while their cars are back home. People need alternatives outside of rush hour, too.
That said, I think there's merit to his suggestion. Metro doesn't depend on fares for its revenues, so relatively speaking this is a cheap idea. Not having to worry about having the fare, or to mess with the Q Card, will surely make some people give transit a second thought. It probably will speed boarding on buses, as without the need for a fare box you can open the back doors to let people embark as well. It won't cost much of anything to try this, and it won't cost much of anything to reverse course if it doesn't lead to more boardings. I'm willing to give it a shot. What do you think? Greg has more.
UPDATE: Rad Sallee also addresses this. I think his point about jeopardizing federal funds, which Greg also alludes to, is a strong one, one that certainly gives me pause. I still think that a pilot test would be worthwhile, just to test his hypothesis about the benefits, but a systemwide implementation in the event it was found to be worthwhile may require a fair bit of planning.Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 11, 2008 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles