Monday, April 22, 2013

The case for (and against) public subsidy for public transport

David Levinson and I write about why and why not subsidize transit at Streets.mn. Here is one part:

Subsidy should be considered two ways: capital subsidy and operating subsidy. These are related, but different enough that they should be considered separately.
Capital subsidy can be direct or indirect (such as assistance with land acquisition), and these monies come from federal, state, metropolitan, local and sub-local sources. Traditionally capital subsidy has largely come from federal and state sources, though recently local sources through sponsorship (see the Emirates Airways gondola in London, for instance) or value capture have been used. Capital subsidy for transit expansion rarely, if ever, considers the effects capacity and network expansion have on operating subsidy, however. Since every transit system in the United States requires an operating subsidy, every service expansion increased the required operating subsidy and makes the financial position of transit agencies worse over the medium and long term.
Operating subsidies are from local, regional and state sources. The federal government placed severe limits on using federal money for operations in the 1970s, in part because most of the increases in subsidy went to total wages without any increase in productivity. The primary reason for operating subsidy for US systems now seems to be “that’s the way we do it here,” which is not a proper justification. Many of the cities around the world—and in North America if we look to Canada, where the Toronto system is required to maintain 75% farebox recovery in order to receive provincial subsidy for the remaining costs—have much higher farebox recovery, fewer operating subsidies and much higher ridership, which suggests a justification for less subsidy and higher fares: planning without prices leads to bad planning.


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