Build transit on a smart track with clear focus, paid rides
Written by Michael Lewis on April 26, 2016
Transit in Miami-Dade might soon roll toward a sidetrack reminiscent of a 2002 trip to a bait-and-switch tax that bought little new rail while roads congested.
Some county commissioners are talking about making all transit free, funded by a new tax like the one we created for transit in 2002. At the same time, planners just agreed to build six new transit legs with not a penny more in their wallets but taxes in their minds.
If we tried all that, we’d leave a safe route of having more riders pay a bit of their costs while adding to the transit grid piece by piece.
Instead, we’d be seeking freebies for more riders funded by a new tax promising everything to everyone. We’ve taken that bumpy ride before.
Either way – a secure route to grow incrementally, or a route to everything for everyone and freebies for all – must rest on more than aspirations. Transit is fueled by numbers. If they scare you, turn the page now.
The trip began when Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan sought to restore a fare for Metromover, which serves downtown.
Metromover riders had paid fares until the 2002 vote that created a tax pledged to build eight mass transit routes. As a giveback for taxing ourselves, Metromover would be free. Voters bought it.
It was a bad buy. No major routes appeared. Money instead went to maintain what we had. In 2014, the sales tax that was supposed to build new routes instead funded $150 million in transit operating losses.
Ms. Jordan, saying that well-to-do riders and tourists fill Metromover, recently proposed restoring a fare because all other transit, with its lower-income riders, is paid.
Had a committee passed her plan two weeks ago, a $2.25 Metromover fare could have yielded $22 million a year. Instead, commissioners killed it – so Ms. Jordan reversed course and vowed to seek free transit for all.
That would be going from adding $22 million to subtracting $115.5 million in current fares, a $137.5 million annual swing.
Doubling our transit tax and divvying up the money as we do now would about cover that swing – remember, the tax yielded $150 million to run transit in 2014. But that would leave almost nothing to build six routes that planners just put on track.
On the other hand, adding no tax but charging $2.25 for all transit, including Metromover, would give us $22 million a year to build. A more ambitious doubling of the tax too would leave $175 million a year. Bonding on $175 million could build some of those six new legs.
But remember, the more transit we build the more we’ll subsidize, even if we charged everyone full fare (we don’t, but that’s another story).
The $558 million transit operating costs in 2014, for example, were paid by state, federal, gasoline tax, other funds and $150 million from the transit tax, plus fares themselves that at $115.5 million totaled less than 21% of operating costs.
That means that for every full-paying rider we lure onto new transit, 79% of costs come from taxes. If we made all transit free, riders would cover none and taxpayers 100%.
There is no free lunch. Someone pays. If social engineering shifts people to free transit, taxpayers pay. But riders should pay something, just as people do in public housing – heavily subsidized but not totally free.
Some argue that Metromover use is growing only because it’s free. But no evidence shows that free rides generate that gain.
Over the past five Januaries (the most recent figures) free Metromover ridership rose a healthy 16.1% while paid bus ridership fell a very sick 18.3%.
But a better comparison is to Metrorail, where in five years paid ridership grew 13.8%. That’s not as much gain as Metromover’s 16.1%, but in the period Metromover also became more useful by adding a station in Brickell that had been closed and reopening a Museum Park stop for the new art museum. Plus, the core city population has boomed, giving Metromover use three spurts in the period.
Subtract those three changes and free Metromover and paid Metrorail would have gained about equally in five years. A fare didn’t deter riders on Metrorail and it wouldn’t on Metromover.
As to complaints that collecting fares would balloon costs, smart phones could pay most fares and an honor system (they’re used elsewhere) could handle the others. Big collection costs are passé.
Clearly, free transit is the wrong track. Also clearly, no matter how many routes planners declare equal targets, they must build some lines before others even if we could find the money.
Because Miami has a massive edifice complex, we often forget that whatever we build we must operate and maintain. Even if fares pay 21% of operations, the other 79% must come from somewhere. Eliminating fares would just leave a larger funding cavity.
In transit, like most things, one success in adding capacity beats six promised new lines that aren’t going anywhere fast. And fares help keep them going somewhere.