The Myth That Public Transportation Must be Self-Supporting

There have always been three major challenges to the introduction of more and better mass transit and public transportation.

The first is that because of geography, only some people can benefit much from public transportation and mass transit. You need a critical mass of people who are trying to get from one general area to another to run a bus line or more, and in some places, that critical mass just doesn’t exist.

busThe second is that because some people live in places where they can’t personally benefit from public transportation, they don’t want their tax dollars used to support transportation for others. Never mind that childless adults and seniors see their tax dollars spent on public education, that people who don’t read have their tax money spent on libraries, that people who have no beef with overseas governments have their tax money spent on guns and fighter-planes and soldiers, and that those fortunate enough never to see their homes and offices broken into or aflame see their tax dollars spent on those silly police and fire departments. No, those things are okay but they draw a line at anyone spending their money on public transportation. If people want to go somewhere, they insist, let them buy a car and drive like the rest of us. Or walk, if they must. Environmental concerns seem to be putting a little dent in this argument, although only a little one, as is the recognition that if you can get some of those cars off the road people who must be in their cars can get to where they want to go a little faster and with a little less traffic.

The third major challenge is the perception among many, including those who don’t benefit personally from public transportation and those of a certain market-oriented and conservative political bent, that government shouldn’t subsidize public transportation and mass transit and that the fares such services charge must be enough to cover their costs and that if they can’t, they should be abandoned. Let the market decide whether there should be public transportation – and let the private market invest in that transportation if there’s really money to be made doing it.

On the surface, that third argument makes sense. After all, if the 88 bus that runs through parts of northeast Philadelphia to the Market-Frankford El and its terminal from which about a dozen different buses fan out for other parts of the city doesn’t have enough riders to cover its costs, why should taxpayers subsidize the 88? If the supply of riders doesn’t generate enough revenue to cover the route’s costs, what’s the rationale for keeping it? Why not just discontinue the 88?

Yes, that makes some sense – but it’s not a fair argument because it’s only applied to public transportation and mass transit. It’s never used as an argument against building and maintaining roads.

That’s right: roads. We certainly want more and better roads and we want those potholes fixed and an occasional repaving, but did you know that gasoline taxes and tolls account for only about a third of road construction and maintenance costs? When you look at it that way, public transportation doesn’t seem so out of line with fares accounting for a little more than twenty percent of its costs.

And of course, the amount of money we spend to subsidize roads dwarfs what we spend subsidizing mass transit.

amtrakAnd the one thing that really tickles The Curmudgeon is when you apply this kind of reasoning to Amtrak, the quasi-governmental rail line that’s heavily subsidized not by local or regional taxpayers but by all taxpayers. It seems as if every year some congressional numbskull whose political party begins with the letter R mounts his soapbox and rails against the national rails, insisting that he’s sick and tired of taxpayers subsidizing such a money-losing operation.

The facts, though, tell a different story: while fares cover about twenty percent of public transportation costs and taxes and tolls cover about thirty-three percent of road construction and maintenance costs, Amtrak fares cover sixty-nine percent of Amtrak’s operating and capital costs.

So Amtrak actually produces a bigger bang for the public buck than any other kind of ground transportation and the political hacks who complain about it are, as usual, talking out of their…well, you know.

Public transportation is a good thing. The Curmudgeon used that 88 bus to get to high school for four years – unlike a lot of places, Philadelphia doesn’t extend yellow school bus service to high schoolers; he rode that same 88 bus, or the 20, to the Market-Frankford El to college for five-and-a-half years (yes, he was slow) and then rode the same combination to work for the first fifteen years after he finished college. Lots of people use public transportation, and it enables people to get to jobs they couldn’t otherwise hold, to stores and attractions they could never otherwise visit, to airports and sports stadiums and parades and flower shows and many other things that might struggle to survive if they had to rely solely on people in cars or within walking distance to fill their seats and their cash registers.

At the same time, public transportation unquestionably is a very expensive proposition, and it’s appropriate to scrutinize major investments in new systems very carefully. But the argument that it’s never worth doing if the fares it generates don’t cover 100 percent of its costs is both bogus and dishonest because if we held roads and bridges to that standard we’d be driving our gas-guzzling SUVs on dirt roads and never, ever crossing any rivers.

And we certainly wouldn’t stand for allowing that to happen.

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  • OnlyGoodBooks  On April 23, 2015 at 7:35 am

    Nice work, as always. You should tweak this and submit it to some op-ed pages. Maybe reach out to NJ Spotlight. It would be nice for more than 23 people to read this. You make strong arguments! Cheers, SarahT.

  • foureyedcurmudgeon  On April 23, 2015 at 8:38 am

    Thanks for the kind words, Sarah – and for the optimism: I’m suddenly and surprisingly getting closer, but 23 readers is pretty much at the top end of what I get here. I also appreciate the suggestion about sharing it with someone other than my loyal Not-Quite-23, but I don’t think any publication or web site that aspires to credibility would be interested in an anonymous contribution, and that’s what it would need to be.

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