What would Seattle look like if Metro fares weren't subsidized?

There are a lot of people out there who consider it a waste to use taxpayer money subsidizing transit fares in urban areas. Obviously I'm not one of them, and my response to those people is usually to note that if all those people drove instead traffic would be (even more) unbearable, pollution and oil dependence would increase, public health and safety would suffer, and more space dedicated to parking in apartment units would increase rents as well.

This usually leads to an argument about how if I want to save the world then it shouldn't be on the car drivers' dollar, to which I respond that the majority of Metro's operating budget comes from sales tax*, which everyone pays (and the lower your income the larger the proportion of your income paid as sales tax), followed by transit fares, then federal and state grants for the capital budget. The total spent on transit by King County Metro is about $1 billion per year. Certainly some money comes directly from those who drive, for example the 2-year $20 vehicle license fee in effect right now that the King County Council approved to mitigate a 17% cut in Metro service last year. There are other things too, higher up in the state budget. But most people who use the bus also own at least one car. So round and round we go, point-counterpoint.

Where your sales tax money is being spent (source: kingcounty.gov)

Where your sales tax money is being spent (source: kingcounty.gov)

Lately I've been asking the question: what do you propose we do instead? These people seem extremely averse to spending money on mass transit, but especially in light of our growing population and a lack of room for any more roads, I don't hear many alternatives being offered. I'm all for directing more money toward maintenance rather than endlessly expanding our infrastructure (and therefore our maintenance liabilities), but it's obvious that simply maintaining what we've got is a recipe for a steadily worsening transportation system as the population increases. I've yet to get a straight answer from anyone on what they'd actually prefer to see (as opposed to "no more trains!" and "no more war on cars!"), so feel free to let me know in the comments what your vision is for the transportation system if you don't support subsidizing mass transit.

As a thought experiment about public transportation subsidies, here's what I think it would look like if we started demanding that everyone pay the full, unsubsidized cost of their fares:

First off, Metro fares are currently about $2.50 (up a dollar since 2008) in Seattle. We've got a roughly 28% farebox recovery rate, meaning that we recoup 28% of our operating expenses in the form of user fees. If we wanted to increase that to 100% we'd have to charge about $9 per ride and that's making the inane assumption that increasing fares more than threefold will not reduce ridership. So, to get to and from work we're looking at $18, and assuming five work days a week we've got about $360 a month spent just on the work/school commute. Add another ten trips during the month for various errands and we're up to $450.

Many bus riders could afford this, but would they choose to? Given that the vast majority of mass transit users own cars anyway, the question now becomes whether gas + parking (car payment, licensing fees, and insurance already being paid for) adds up to $450 per month, and the answer is almost certainly "no." So everyone who owns a car starts using it for almost all of their trips, even if they used to prefer using the bus or train to get around most of the time.

For those who don't own cars, the decision is a bit more difficult. They have to decide whether the cost of a car payment, licensing fees, insurance, gas, and parking are a better deal than $450 a month in fares. Personally, I owned a 1995 Camry for five years that cost me $5,000 to purchase and about $2,000 in maintenance over it's lifetime, which adds up to about $120 per month for 60 months. Add $50 for liability insurance (if you're over 24 and have a clean driving record, at least), $50 or so for various fees, and $100 for gas (optimistically). We'll ignore parking for now, but I'll get to that later. That adds up to $320 per month, far under the cost of a month of busing and much more convenient, too. So many people who don't currently own cars also start driving them to get around everywhere.

Who's left after that? Basically the very poor, the young, and the very old. In other words, the transit system falls apart due to lack of a constituency and we don't actually have mass transit anymore. Everyone drives everywhere, and those who can't due to age, ability, or income are left to fend for themselves. Even if we limited transit subsidies to just these people, they don't make up a large enough share of the population to constitute a real transit system and many of them already struggle with $2.50 fares, so instead we'd end up with a bunch of incredibly inefficient routes serving a relatively small pool of people. In our quest to end transit subsidies we end up with a system with a farebox recovery rate that is probably closer to 5-10%, subsidized to an even greater degree than before. If efficiency was the goal here we've failed miserably.

And what about all the people already driving as their primary means of transportation? Needless to say, traffic and parking get much worse, particularly downtown where a large proportion of transit trips begin and end. Less of their money is going toward transit projects though, and more toward roads. This does almost nothing to improve traffic in Seattle since there's no room for more roads, but maybe existing roads are kept in a better state of repair. Maybe not though, since all of those cars take a toll on the road, and since congestion has increased everyone is spending more of their time on the pavement. Pollution worsens; people walk around less and sit in traffic more, both of which are bad for physical and mental health; and although the full 1.8 cents of sales tax** that is devoted to transit is no longer needed, those savings are almost certainly eaten away--and then some--by the extra gas wasted sitting in the worsened traffic.

More of this. Right on.

More of this. Right on.

To make matters worse for drivers, with more people now reliant on cars parking in central Seattle will become scarce. This means two things: first, metered street parking rates increase drastically in order to maintain their target of one open space per block; second, as paid parking lots and garages begin to fill up and supply is saturated, demand drives prices for private parking up too. Likewise for parking rates in apartments, driving up effective rents. New apartments and condos built in the city will start including more underground parking (an extremely expensive form of parking infrastructure), adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of each unit. This general phenomenon would likely recapitulate itself in every neighborhood center, driving up parking rates not just in downtown, Capitol Hill, and South Lake Union, but Fremont, Ballard, the University District, Wallingford, Queen Anne, Columbia City, Eastlake, etc.

This would be a terrible outcome for drivers, particularly those who preferred to take the bus but can no longer afford it, but it's bad for the economy too. There are already people who avoid traveling to Seattle because of the traffic and lack of cheap parking. (Personally, I hated Seattle before moving here because my only experiences involved driving around in it.) If the buses disappear you can count on that sentiment getting far stronger, and a lot of business that comes in from outside the city will quickly evaporate. That means less business for just about every type of service- or retail-based company in the city, and reduced tax revenue as a result. So all that money we're saving by not sending the entire 1.8 cents of sales tax toward transit? It's at least partially offset by the loss of sales tax revenue from non-Seattleites who now avoid Seattle when they can. That's to say nothing of Seattleites themselves, who are now spending more on gas (or in the case of former busers, transportation in general) and have less money to spend on food, drinks, entertainment, rent, electronics, bicycles, clothing, etc. Once again, this means less revenue for the city, and all those sales tax savings are chipped away even further.

Have I made myself clear? Subsidized public transportation is not a luxury in a large urbanized city: it's a necessity. I made a point of glossing over the moral implications of removing these subsidies not because it's unimportant--it's vitally important--but because the economic argument is sufficient unto itself. By dedicating 19% of our sales tax toward public transportation we ensure that Seattle is able to function as the cultural and economic center of our region. Non-automotive options for getting into, out of, and around the city are essential if we're to retain that position, and our investment in those options more than pays for itself by keeping more spending local, restraining housing costs, and allowing us to remain a viable destination for those who come to our city by car, either by choice or of necessity.

*Fun fact: One-quarter of the sales tax collected for Metro goes toward capital expenses. If the entire 1.8 cent sales tax was directed toward operating expenses, user fees + sales tax revenue would exceed the operating budget.

**The 1.8% sales tax dedicated to transit pays for both King County Metro and Sound Transit.