Saturday, December 16, 2006

Yesterday, I started a discussion of plans by our local mass transit authority to close a funding shortfall by dramatically raising prices and cutting service. In line with my policy of not wanting to complain about something without offering something in its place, I have some suggestions of my own for solving the problems. I am assisted in this by my regular, anonymous reader of this blog, who posted a lengthy comment to yesterday’s post in which he made a number of cogent observations which largely track with my own.

First, let’s be clear about the purpose of a mass transit system: it’s to move the largest number of people at the lowest possible cost both to the system and to the individual. My anonymous commenter noted that in the Far East, where he lived for many years, bus systems were heavily subsidized in order to provide cheap and reliable transportation for the mass of workers too poor to own cars. I made the same observation while living in Europe. An inexpensive, commuter-friendly mass transit system allows low-wage workers to travel to and from their jobs at a cost within their means and, not incidentally, allows employers to keep wages low since they don’t have to allow for high commuting costs. Bus fares, in particular, should be kept low and routes and schedules should be plentiful to allow large numbers of people to travel economically and to reduce traffic.

Second, as I noted yesterday, the transit authority’s plan to raise fares during rush hours and apply surcharges to the most heavily-transited stations just doesn’t make sense. The point of these changes is to force people to travel at off-peak hours to reduce crowding on trains and buses and in certain stations…but the great majority of people don’t have a choice in when they travel to work – their travel is based on their working hours. That’s why there’s a morning and an evening rush hour. Instead of imposing economic hardship on riders who can’t control the times they need to ride, why not work with employers to stagger work hours such that the rush hour is more spread out, or encourage employers to allow as many workers as possible to telecommute from home? Since we are talking about the Washington DC metro area, where the Federal Government is the largest employer, let the Federal Government set the example in this regard. Many people (my daughter is one of them) can do much of their work from home with a computer and a connection to the Internet; to the extent that they do so, fewer people crowd the transit facilities or congest the highways.

And while we’re at it, don’t charge the highest fares when people need to get to their jobs…that unfairly penalizes working people. Instead of charging the highest fares at peak ridership hours, charge them at the off-peak times, when the system is used largely by tourists and people not commuting to work.

Finally, the governments whose regions are served by Metrobus and Metrorail need to get serious about setting up a steady and reliable source of annual funding for the system. If Metro managers could rely on a steady stream of funding from year to year, they would be better able to plan capital investments and routine maintenance. How to provide these funds? Well, there’s the proverbial rub. No one wants a tax on commuters, but it strikes me that that is probably the fairest way to do it. A writer to this morning’s Washington Post suggested a $5.00 tax on “every single-occupant car approaching Washington.” That’s a bit vague, but a useful starting point for consideration of funding sources.

My anonymous commenter pointed out that if commuting costs rise to a level higher than wages can bear, many people will simply quit their jobs, thereby inflating the welfare rolls. And, of course, if they can’t afford to ride mass transit, ridership goes down, income from fares decreases, and in a year or two we’re back to the same economic death spiral we see now.

I don’t pretend that all these ideas will solve the problem, but taken together I believe they can go a long way toward ameliorating the conditions of crowded transit and choked streets. In any case, the managers of the system owe it to us, the customers, to look at every possible alternative before they do the reflexive thing and hit us with the double whammy of higher prices and reduced service.

But I think they’ll do it anyway, just because it’s easier.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


No comments: