Transit economics

Our view: Slashing service and raising fares are tempting during a budget crisis, but that approach ignores public transportation's real benefits for taxpayers

March 09, 2010

Despite some modest help from the federal stimulus plan, times are tough for public transportation. Across the country, agencies are seeing ridership and government funding drop even as they reduce services and raise fares to keep their budgets balanced.

Some of this is necessary to deal with the inevitable hardships of recession. No public service is immune from economic realities. Running mostly empty buses on little-patronized routes or expecting taxpayers to fully bear the operating costs of transit in Baltimore or anywhere else is not possible politically and probably not smart economically.

But there needs to be a limit on how much public transportation can be squeezed. While belt-tightening is appropriate in the short term, it's easy to lose sight of the long-term need to grow transit ridership and invest far more in buses, trains and other forms of public transportation than is done today.

That dilemma was highlighted last week when Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley was questioned by a General Assembly committee over the Maryland Transit Administration's requested $468 million budget, which a legislative analyst deemed too small to keep up with rising costs.

Where Republicans stand on this issue was made clear when GOP legislators recommended cutting the MTA budget much further and raising fares. Many rural lawmakers would happily see urban transit systems dry up and blow away. The common cry from the transit doubters is the same today as it's always been: Why can't the MTA operate as a business?

The problem with this thinking is that it recognizes the costs of transit services but not their value. The MTA's fare box recovery rate may be hovering around 30 percent, but that doesn't mean it's inefficient. Roads are heavily subsidized by tax dollars, too, as is every form of transportation, yet nobody talks of the state highway or airport "business model."

Transit connects people to jobs and gets them off government subsidies. It reduces traffic congestion and the need to build massively expensive new highways. It uses energy more efficiently, causes fewer pollutants to be spewed into the environment and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Why spend taxpayers' money on transit? Ultimately, for only one reason: because it's in their interests.

If the MTA can be more efficient, we're all for it. Still, the question the MTA ought to be asking itself is this: What can we do to attract more customers?

If the business model has anything to teach government, it's the need to put the interests of your customers (in this case, riders) first. Few profit from a strategy that seeks only to raise prices and diminish product - at least not companies that want to stay in business long.

The real crisis for Maryland transportation is the failure of government leaders to put forth a plan to finance the state's future transportation needs. Proposals in Annapolis to raise the gas tax are considered DOA. Alternatives are in short supply.

Until that changes, Maryland won't have much choice but to watch ridership and transit services erode like so many leftover piles of snow. But instead of cold water, all that will remain is gridlock, pollution, poverty, unemployment and a lot of regret.

Readers respond
The most successful places on the planet have the best transit. Why mess with that formula?

Jed

You fail to mention the inherent danger of taking mass transit in this crime ridden city.

Jay

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