Saturday, March 18, 2006

It's Discount Transit Month!

Here's how it works. All infrastructure investment/expansion and
operating subsides (if any) are suspended on the first day of this
theoretical month. Likewise operating charges are adjusted to
accurately reflect operating costs only. There are, of course, a
few "gray areas." This is only a thought experiment so we can wing
it. Feel free to make changes and rerun the test if you wish.
Examples: The electricity to run traffic signals is a cost outside
of strict operating costs. So are police services that patrol
highways, etc. For bus comparison this is a wash, but for a subway
or airport/airline or private r-o-w rail system they generally pay
for the electricity and the security as part of their operating

What would happen? Well, for one thing every transit ticket price
in the US increases anywhere from 13% to 1000%. For another, the
cost of fuel drops from $1.50/gal to around $0.95/gal. Tolls drop to
essentially zero. It would probably be more expensive to collect
most tolls than to just "eat" that miniscule portion that goes to
operating costs. For ferry boats and critical path bridges, etc. it is
probably still a good idea.
Oh, by the way, that car payment? Skip it. After all in this
experiment we aren't going to pay capital costs for the month.
Transit riders? Sorry, you don't pay for your train/LR/Bus/whatever
-now- so you don't get anything in the experiment either. Remember
this is a theoretical attempt to compares apples-apples. Wait for
the other 11 months in the year when the current system returns and
you get your free trains/LR/buses/whatever.
So, day two. How are we doing? Well the NY subway system shouldn't be
too badly affected. Its only raised fares 13%. But wait, all the
feeder systems from busses to commuter rail have raised ticket
prices. Let's guess that greater NYC transit operates at twice the
national average farebox recovery? That is 2 x 20% or 40% farebox
of operating costs. Their fares are raised 150%. Any guesses as to
systemwide ridership? Down, way down and only the second day. The
much vaunted 87% farebox recovery of NYC subways relies on far less
financially solvent sources for its ridership. Besides almost 2 billion of
NYCTAs farebox revenue is bridge tolls. Oh, and for auto
drivers, the tolls are free and the car payment is in their pocket
and gas is at 95cents/gal. [They're going to Disneyworld!] Actually
they are clogging the streets. Regionwide gridlock. You thought
this was going to be a one-sided experiment. Obviously, even those
who don't use transit benefit from the subsidy they pay to support
it. The point of this experiment is to make is absolutely obvious
to anyone that beyond question private surface road travelers pay
MORE than their operating costs AND subsidize the operating costs of
public transit.
What about government? Very interesting. Since we aren't working
on any infrastructure, using the county roads employees as overpass
footings is out of the question. I'll let someone else
prognosticate. Tax revenues will shift dramatically but so will
What about marginalized transit users? Well for one there will be
a lot of people who can (this month only) afford private auto travel
without the expense of car payments and with 95 cent gas and minimal
tolls and of course the much cheaper cost of goods delivered by
truck. Goods delivered by truck is just about everything so the
consumer price index should look pretty good this month. What about
the others? Tremendous inconvenience at the very least. Luckily
this is only an experiment. We owe it to the least advantaged in
society to provide a minimum of services and currently public
transit is how we provide mobility. Same goes for ADA riders. At
first I thought of charging them the breakout cost of their portion
of public transit operating cost but reconsidered. One, disability
is not a criteria for separate treatment anymore than race or gender
is. Second, this is an operating cost experiment. If anything
disabled ridership, although an expensive capital investment, is
probably cheaper to serve because of their time and destination
Air travel? Again a gray area appears, air traffic controllers are
their version of traffic signals. But again their portion of
operating cost is vanishingly small. Some 40% of aircraft total
expenses is fuel. Their taxes are not as high as at the pump but
still considerable. I'd guess that removing fuel taxes would
translate to 8% ticket price reductions, if passed on. Oh, and that
nasty little ticket tax? Score another 10% for the air traveler.
Would these be passed on? In a month when the airlines can skip
their purchase payments and lease payments, I suspect they would
feel at least that generous. Don't forget the hated PFC charges,
they all go to infrastructure so this month they are gone.
Obviously this cannot go on very long. Air travel has tremendous
capital costs and unlike transit, the government doesn't pick up the
airlines' tab for new vehicles. Autos, busses and trucks are very
hard on their r-o-ws. The need for ongoing capital maintenance and
investment is a necessity for every mode to remain at peak
effectiveness, indeed operational.
The point of the experiment, however, should stay around for good
reasons. I know it won't be but it should be clear that it is a
canard to talk about operating costs when discussing transit. The
honest number is total cost. After all, it should be clear from
this experiment that the operating cost of personal autos is vastly
cheaper and more efficient. Operating costs vs. operating costs
comparisons that is...
And remember a month without transit subsidies is a month without

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