Fare’s fair: Metromover rides are too useful to give away
Written by Michael Lewis on September 3, 2014
An old can of worms flew open this week as two county commissioners offered a plan to charge actual cash for the privilege of riding public transit downtown.
They’re absolutely correct: we should pay for the very valuable service of riding around downtown on the Metromover rather than consuming gas, battling traffic, losing time and building frustration trying to navigate the heart of Miami by car.
For Miamians who’ve never used it, note that the 4.4-mile rail system now takes you from here to there absolutely free, with trains every 90 seconds in peak hours.
It sounds like a huge bargain – and it is. Unfortunately, a bargain for riders is a drain on the county, which means taxpayers. The federal government doesn’t pay a penny for operations. We do.
Metromover wasn’t always free. It started at 25 cents back in 1986 for the first 1.9-mile loop. As it got longer and went 21 places it still cost 25 cents.
In 2002 the system carried 4.7 million riders. Then promoters pushed through a half percent sales tax to fund mass transit additions. To win votes, they pledged free Metromover rides.
The gas passed. The fare disappeared as promised. But what never was done as promised was spend tax proceeds to expand transit. Instead, the money was poured into maintenance and operations.
Meanwhile, we kept riding Metromover free. And riders kept increasing. Last fiscal year they more than doubled from 2002 to nearly 9.6 million trips. All free.
Which shows that if you give away a valuable service you can pack the rail cars – as long as you tax folks to keep them running.
This week, Barbara Jordan and Sally Heyman, who have long backed charging for Metromover, tried again. They asked fellow commissioners to by two-thirds vote amend the code that eliminated the right to charge a fare.
It’ll be a rough ride. Commissioners love to give things away, as long as voters don’t realize that they’re actually paying for the rides some other way. A two-thirds vote is no sure thing.
Nine very good reasons, however, demand a fair fare:
νTransit subsidies pulled $168 million last year from the county’s general fund – that’s property taxes and more – and $18 million from local option gas taxes that could upgrade roadways. Not all the subsidies go to Metromover and charging wouldn’t cover all of its costs, either, but how about paying something for the privilege of riding?
νIf it’s free, we don’t value it. We take Metromover for granted. But we’d view a $1 service that eliminates $10 to park, cuts gas, reduces aggravation and saves time as a bargain. A small fare is a psychological incentive. Use could rise.
νIf we charge, the homeless will stop circling for hours in air-conditioned cars, driving away passengers who’d use Metromover to get somewhere. Ridership would grow as thousands who now feel the ride is neither clean nor secure climb aboard.
νA whole new crop of affluent downtown condo dwellers can certainly pay $1. In Miami-Dade, the only free transit serves the most gentrified area. That’s inequitable. Level the playing field.
νMass transit never turns a profit. Taxpayers always subsidized it. But seldom do taxpayers subsidize the whole thing. Let the riders chip in. Transit will always lose, but it doesn’t have to lose it all.
νEven if we wanted to give riders a free pass, the money that funds the free ride – the transit tax – might not flow forever. The subsidy is based on ever-rising sales tax collections. But in a tailspin, those taxes would fall, causing a crisis. We can’t rely on that subsidy.
νWhen Metromover started 28 years ago, parking downtown was, by today’s standards, both cheap and plentiful. Now it’s costly and scarce. A rational driver looking at Metromover instead would find it a bargain at $1 – and faster than finding parking.
νGovernment doesn’t give away parking. Why give away transit?
νToday, local taxpayers subsidize all Metromover rides. If users paid a fare, tourists who now ride free could help us pay the upkeep of the system they’re using.
So, how much to charge?
Metrorail and Metrobus are $2.25; the fares rose 25 cents last year. Commissioners Jordan and Dennis Moss in 2009 proposed a 50-cent Metromover fare, and Commissioner Heyman agreed. Anything below that would be a swap, with fare receipts just paying the cost to collect them.
Elsewhere, Detroit’s 2.9-mile people mover, far shorter, charges 50 cents and requires a $12 million annual subsidy. Anchorage charges $2 to ride. The system in Jacksonville, which once charged 35 cents, has been free for two years but even so has only brought ridership up to about 5% of what Miami has.
A $1 fare here is reasonable. That takes courage by commissioners. They did have the courage a year ago to raise Metrorail and Metrobus fares. That same grit is needed to restore a charge to Metromover.
The only concern in reinstituting a fare is that voters were promised no fares if they OK’d a transportation sales tax. Commissioners never asked voters when they diverted the bulk of the transit tax receipts to operations and maintenance instead of using them for new transit as they’d promised.
Well, a promise is a promise. Voters should have been asked before tax receipts were diverted. The commission has a second shot at doing the right thing by asking voters to again allow Metromover fares.
For nine good reasons, a fare is fair – and vital.