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Public transportation

Dave McReynolds

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Dave McReynolds

An article in the local paper this morning got me thinking. Placer county runs commuter busses from various places into downtown Sacramento. The busses have been filling up, so Placer county announced that only current riders will be allowed to ride. The busses are filling up because people are finally beginning to switch to mass transit because of rising gas prices. Placer county will not offer any more than the current 3 busses because it can't afford to. According to the county, rider fares only cover 42% of the cost.


What's wrong with this picture? Aren't we supposed to be encouraging people to get out of their cars and use mass transit, to reduce traffic congestion and consumption of gas? The clear answer seems to be that busses, even full busses, apparently can't or at least aren't paying for themselves. I would assume that a bus with over some minimum number of riders (50% capacity? I have no idea) costs less to operate than an equivalent number of cars on the road, without even considering the effect on traffic congestion. One would think that if you were operating a bus with 80-100% capacity, you could charge a fee that would send money back to the county, and still would cost a rider less than driving a car the same distance.


I was considering sending a letter along these lines to the paper, but decided to bounce it off the members here first. What am I missing?

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Rider fares are obviously too low to cover the cost... and raising them may scare the people away from the bus again..... the eternal dilemma of any public transport operation.


In many European countries/cities the public transportation has been privatized recently.... to lower subsidies, spend less of the tax money going into that (same for many public services actually, like trains, health care, care of the elderly, energy providers, postal services, telephone etc.).


Invariably ALL of those services have seen a sharp decline in quality and availability (perhaps the mobile phone services are the exception).


It appears that only with lots of tax payers money one can have public transport (for a relative few)... frown.gif


Which probably means that gas prices need to quadruple or so to make people REALLY wanting to use such services and PAY for it.

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I can't imagine why they wouldn't want to expand the service as they can always adjust the fare to make the project economically viable as long as demand exists. The only reason that comes to mind for not doing so may be more political than financial... since the prior fares were so heavily subsidized the rate increase required to support a large-scale program would probably generate a lot of complaints, and the county officials in charge of the program don't want the heat.

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To me, that approach is bass-ackwards. As you note, if people are being pushed toward public transportation, the government should be trying to make it happen, not turning people away.


However, the funding issue is one as old as the hills--trying to find the right level of government subsidization vs. increasing or decreasing fares is a delicate balance. It has always struck me that one of the factors that play a role in determining the appropriate level of government fare subsidization is the overall economic effect. For instance, will spending $1 million to get X number of drivers onto buses or trains allow the government to save an equivalent or greater amount in road subsidies, reduced costs of law enforcement, reduced health care costs, etc. It's a very complicated question, but not one that's beyond the ability of economists to figure out.


Because public transit systems have such differential benefits for individual citizens based on each person's circumstances, it seems to me that the governments involved have to balance the cost/benefit equation very carefully.


For me, public transit has been a lifesaver. I live about 25 miles from my office, and I'm in the Chicago metro area, which is about the worst in the country in terms of traffic congestion. However, I live about a two minute walk from a train station, where I catch a Metra train that zips to Union Station in just over a half hour. Over the years, using public transportation has saved me thousands of hours and dollars.

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