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Monday, July 14, 2008

Public transit riders should pay same fuel-cost increases as motorists

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Now would be a good time to raise bus and train fares.

Why not? Everyone else is paying more to get around. Higher gasoline prices are crushing motorists. Airline passengers aren't just paying higher fares; they're also paying for their bags to fly with them. Everyone's getting hurt, except CTA train and bus, Metra commuter rail and Pace suburban bus riders. What makes them so special?

Yes, I know how holy writ dictates that each mass transit rider is one less car on the road, one less motorist adding to the demand for gasoline and making it more expensive for everyone. Or how those selfless, caring transit people, by getting out of their cars, are cutting down on pollution, saving us from global warming, preserving limited resources and providing jobs for Red Line troubadours. We should reward them, not punish them. Asking them to pay for 60 percent or 70 percent of the cost of their rides? The very idea. After all, didn't they "just" have a fare increase?

Indeed, they did, but they're still paying for only a slice of what their rides truly cost; the rest is paid by everyone who, oh yeah, just had a tax increase to give transit riders more subsidies. Chicagoans now pay the highest big-city sales tax in the country, in part for the privilege of helping the good souls who ride trains and buses.

No, I'm not against transit subsidies; public transit couldn't survive without them. And I think mass transit is a swell idea, having spent decades of my life on it, way back to when you could ride streetcars (the red and wood-paneled variety, not just the Green Hornet), catch a North Shore train in the Loop for a ride to the northern suburbs or board an open-ended elevated train car.

See here: The CTA last month said fuel costs could be $25 million more than the amount budgeted this year. That was based on May 26 costs, when the spot price for a barrel of crude was $128. More recently, it has surpassed $140, roughly a 10 percent increase in less than two months. Does anyone really think that it won't go higher?

In that time, gasoline prices, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, rose to about $4.30, from $4.17. Motorists paid all of that increase; transit riders have paid none of it. If the laws of supply and demand applied to transit, fares would be higher because (1) transit is in greater demand thanks to tapped-out motorists and (2) the cost of providing each ride has increased.

But the laws of supply and demand don't apply because politicians—who as a breed are too gutless to tell riders and voters what they need to hear—set fares. So, I'll do it for them, and take the heat.

The heat will come from the squads of urbanologists, progressives and self-ordained civic priests whose belief in the ancient formula for solving metropolitan problems is held with biblical-like certitude. They'll be threatening me with pits and pendulums unless I conform to the standard beliefs, e.g. more mass transit, no more suburban sprawl, controlled growth, comprehensive regional planning and so forth.

C'mon folks, you're talking about the same threadbare dogma that I heard more than 40 years ago when earning my master's degree in urban affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Certainly you can do better than that.

Let's get to the heart of the problem: Many people clogging the highways and transit lines are moving their bodies from place to place because (1) they need to get to work, or (2) they need to acquire stuff. But what if they can do the work and obtain the goods without having to move their bodies around? This is the 21st Century; we can work and shop without our persons having to be transported from place to place by some costly, time-eating, Earth-polluting, resource-consuming mode of transportation. We've got the computer, the Internet, teleconferencing, Webcasting, telecommuting, teleworking, and on and on. If we're really serious about solving our energy and transit-funding problems we'll get really serious about increasing opportunities and incentives for tele- and computer-alternatives. Replace a few of those seminars on how to secure more mass transit funding with seminars on how to get more employers to climb on board.


David M. said...

Dennis, besides lacking empathy for the poor and hard working struggling class, you clearly lack vision. Public transportation is good for the city – it makes it more livable, it allows people to work within their means. It is good for the economy, good for tourism, good for infrastructure. My pet peeve is the road system. Why should I pay for the Interstate road system when I never use much more than I-90/94? And why shouldn’t people that live in Northbook pay for roads in Chicago when they go to see the Cubs? The whole road system should be one big toll road where just the users pay for the road. And Millennium Park, shouldn’t there be an entrance fee so that those that do not go, don’t have to pay for the costs? And, I don’t know, but why should I pay for the cost of the Coast Guard – I never go out on the lake? If Dennis had his way, it would all be one pay-as-go system – right?

Anonymous said...

David m. did not read the column very carefully. Dennis advocates that the beneficiaries of the transit system subsidies share the burden of the increased cost to fund their benefit.

Have we become so whiney and greedy that we expect everything we want and need to be paid for by someone else?

That said, I'm looking forward to taking the train to Chicago for free, though I can afford to pay full fare, thanks to Gov. Doofus. At least this way I get something back from my fuel taxes that are dumped into the general fund instead of being used for road repair and expansion.


David M. said...

No Margaret, I read it well enough, but I admit it is hard to hang onto Dennis’s entire dribble. Dennis said “No, I'm not against transit subsidies...” but he must have missed out on his accounting class while at U of W, Milwaukee. It is hard to raise the cost of public transportation when wages are stagnant, people are losing their jobs, and costs are increasing. Maybe you are happy to pull the rug out from under your neighbor, but I would prefer to give them a little more aid. And who is it that it “whiney”? It seems like you and Dennis are whining – well Dennis is always whining!