Metromover fare is right track, but let voters engineer it
Written by Michael Lewis on February 25, 2015
We applaud a county committee that seeks a fare on our long-free Metro-mover but prefer a means other than a direct commission vote to do the job.
Though a fare is fair for many reasons, it’s unlikely to pass the commission – and it probably shouldn’t, because the county pledged a free system to win voter OK of a transit sales tax.
To overturn the ride-free ordinance would require an improbable nine of 13 commission votes. It would be easier to put the issue on the ballot and let voters themselves decide. That would not only be more easily achieved but would be equitable – let the people choose to unwind the misguided promise.
That would leave commissioners blameless, because in 2002 they offered voters a free ride and made it law. So it should be those holding the IOU who decide whether the county must forever keep that promise – a pledge that deters transit growth and perpetuates roadway gridlock.
If it’s counterintuitive that free transit perpetuates gridlock, note this: Metro-mover rides aren’t really free. The county subsidizes them. Every dollar of subsidy could have been spent to add transportation rather than just keep what we have going.
Transit subsidies are substantial. They pulled $168 million from county general funds in 2013 and $18 million from local gas taxes. That’s $186 million a year that could have helped grow transit. You can bond that into billions.
Granted, only some of that money went to Metromover. Also granted, all urban transit gets some subsidy.
Still, every million we use to grow transit rather than fund free rides is better spent. And our general property taxes must do the job if fares aren’t funding transit as transportation sales tax receipts shift in coming years to repaying bonds for what we’ve already spent.
We’ll pay either way, but direct payment seems more equitable than taxing those who don’t ride equally with those who do. Plus, via fares we can let tourists help us pay for transit that they now ride free.
Riders are using Metromover more and more. Last year use grew 3.6%, outpacing the larger Metrorail system’s 2.6% gain. Meanwhile, bus use fell 2.2%.
The 4.4-mile Metromover serving the urban core carried 9.2 million passengers last year, half of what Metrorail carried and only an eighth of what the buses did. Still, Metromover is where the growth is.
When Metromover went free in 2002, riders increased 51% from the same month the prior year, so some worry that with a fare these riders would stop using the system.
But it’s no longer 2002, and what would those riders do now instead? Driving and parking in the urban core get worse each year and far more expensive too. Meanwhile, our downtown population is larger, younger and more likely to rely on transit. What could replace a $1 Metromover ride for economy, efficiency or speed? For the vast majority, probably nothing. But it would bring the system more than $9 million annually.
Metromover now is carrying passengers who need it far more. We’ll add more soon as more people live downtown, more offices fill, Brickell City Centre opens (and with it a new Eighth Street Metromover station that was closed even as system use rose), and frustration with driving grows exponentially.
Timing is ideal to let users help fund transportation’s growth without fear of a rapid falloff in riders.
Of course, a fare won’t be popular. It’s never popular to pay for something that once was free. Yet it’s rational and fair.
The county says a 50-cent fare would barely cover the cost of collecting the money. At $1, however, a fare could generate money for the system, which is aging badly and needs not only expansion but upgrades to improve reliability.
Commissioners are understandably reluctant to push for a fare. Who wants to be linked with fees?
But there’s no political downside to letting voters themselves decide if people who ride Metromover should help maintain it rather than spreading the cost of downtown transit equally around the county and letting the tourists off free.
And it’s only right that voters get the final say. They created a transit tax for new service that commissioners quickly subverted to other uses. If commissioners also decide on their own to levy a fare it’s doubly duplicitous.
Given the right to vote and the facts, however, Miami-Dade residents are wise enough to choose the right road – one that lets riders pay for a privilege that grows more valuable with every mile per hour that downtown traffic slows and every dollar per hour that parking costs rise.
At $1, a Metromover ride would still be a great deal.