Harsh Seattle transit realities

COST Commentary: Below are excerpts from a revealing email exchange regarding Seattle and California Bay Area Transit. This exchange is by loacal area, knowledgable, respected citizens. The excerpts have been slightly edited to be easily understood by the reader.

This exchange again substantiates the unsustainable nature of Austin’s transportation plan which has a trend of allocating increasing percentages of transportation dollars to ineffective public transit such as trains and trolleys while 99% of the regions travelers face increasing danger and congestion on the roadways. The Austin region’s 25 year plan (2035 Plan) recently approved by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) includes an almost 50% allocation of transportation funds to transit serving less than 1% of passenger miles traveled. It is well over 50% of the area’s transportation tax funds considering portions of the roadways are funded by toll roads and transit costs are understated by more than a billion dollars.

Harsh Seattle transit realities
from Emory Bundy, See brief background below.

There is a vast distance between the facts and public perceptions, and “the media” is implicated in those misperceptions. A very common belief is that roads and highways are lavishly subsidized, and transit is starved for funds.

It’s transit that’s receiving most of the transportation money, yet serving a small fraction of the transportation needs. Further, all but a tiny fraction of transit trips rely on roads and highways, and even that tiny fraction, i.e. Sounder, Tacoma Link, and Initial Segment/Airport Link, rely largely on roads and highways to get patrons to, and/or from the rail stations.

Politicians and relevant agencies systematically fail to enlighten the public on this vital matter, making it even more incumbent on the press to do so: Namely, that we are heading toward two-thirds of transportation funding for a few percent of the trips, most of which also depend on roads and highways. And, also, an appreciation that, in the main, roads and highways are financed by the users, through gasoline taxes, while transit is funded by everybody, via sales taxes, plus a portion of the gasoline tax. One largely pays its way (and ought to do so in full), while the other is an enormous drain on public resources that could be used for better purposes.

And where are we going? More and more money devoted to transit, with little gain in ridership, and generally no gain at all in transit market share. A problem compounded by the introduction and development of rail transit. Sound Transit now absorbs half of all transit funding, and delivers a very small ridership when compared with the local transit agencies. Plus, while Sound Transit spends its money primarily on Link light rail, secondly Sounder commuter rail, most of its patrons, i.e. its ridership benefits, travel on its Regional Express buses.

To digress: I’ve noticed recently that more than three-times as many daily commuters travel between Tacoma and Seattle, and Everett and Seattle, on Sound Transit’s express buses, as on Sounder, for a tiny fraction of the cost to taxpayers. I am citing Sound Transit data.

Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, values, and advocacy. But everyone also is entitled to access to the basic facts surrounding their decisions. Currently we operate on flagrantly false, and misrepresented factual underpinnings.

Notes from a California Bay Area resident:

Recently there was an excellent, unusually frank report from the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, “Transit in Transition: Can we achieve a sustainable future for public transit in the San Francisco Bay area?” The short answer is a resounding NO, unless things are changed, profoundly. The central finding is, while transit funding was doubled over a decade or less, transit ridership increased by only 7 percent–and transit market share did worse. In short, productivity is falling at an enormous rate. The Bay Area has a better record than Central Puget Sound has had in the Sound Transit era, but it’s a fatal, unsustainable course. More and more money, for no commensurate benefit, possibly even no improvement in transit market share at all, maybe even losses, while more and more and more scarce public resources are consumed, with no reason to expect improvement in the future.

Five years ago, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, Michael Cabanatuan, wrote a most revealing article, typical of press coverage on rail transit–misconstruing the facts to point in exactly the wrong direction. He cogently reports that transit ridership is fading, there are fare increases and service cutbacks, and there have been 11 transit bond issues in the previous four years, all of which passed. In 2004 alone $8 billion more for transit was approved by voters. But then he completely ignores the fundamental problem of progressively more and more unproductive transit expenditures, and concludes that More Money must be found to provide public transit what it needs.

All over the country transit costs are escalating, ridership is stagnant, and market share is going nowhere, often down. This is the case with bus transit, and it’s dramatically escalated with rail transit. Fourteen years ago Professor Jose Gomez Ibanez of Harvard published an article, “Big City Transit, Ridership, and Deficits: Avoiding Reality in Boston” (APA Journal, March 1996), which has the following abstract:

“Boston is typical of many metropolitan areas struggling to maintain or increase their transit ridership while keeping their transit deficits-defined here as the shortfall between passenger revenues and transit agency costs- under control. In Boston, transit rider-ship has increased over the last twenty years because the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) has offset the effects of suburbanization and income growth by extending rail lines into the suburbs and by keeping fare increases below the rate of inflation. The service extensions and fare reductions have been a major factor, however, in the explosion of the MBTA deficit from $21 million in 1965 to $575 million in 1991. There has been little political will or incentive to date to adopt measures-such as tolling autos or contracting out transit services with the private sector-that might help control the deficit without greatly reducing ridership. Although these measures are not long-term remedies, without them cities like Boston may soon find they cannot afford to maintain transit ridership.”

What is not mentioned in the abstract is, while the annual subsidy rocketed from $21 to $575 million (YOE$), 1965-91, transit market share decreased from 14 to 11 percent. Further, he reported that, at regular intervals, a massive capital equipment bail-out is required: of the sort that recurrently happened in NYC, and is in urgent demand today in places like DC, Atlanta, and the Bay Area.

Over the years I’ve become increasingly impressed with how on-the-mark Gomez Ibanez’ Boston study is, and how widely applicable.

There is this anomaly/subterfuge in the Bay Area MTC report: The problem is blamed on the recession. Though, it also suggests that the end of the recession won’t solve the problem. Cabanatuan’s 2005 article also blamed the plight of transit’s finances on the tough economic times. Perhaps had Gomez Ibanez been more susceptible, Boston’s problems in the 1965-91 era could have been blamed on tough economic times, too.

Emory Bundy is a graduate of the UW and UCLA and a former professor of political science at Oberlin College and University of East Africa. He has served as head of the staff of a member of Congress and as the Director of Public Affairs at King Broadcasting Company during 1969-83. He is an avid environmentalist and has served as a member of the staff of a major foundation focused on environmental affairs. He is an avid bicyclist, commuting for some 30 years and does not own an auto (as of 2002). Bundy has written and spoken frequently regarding transportation in Seattle.

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