Subsidies and Transit in the Twin Cities

Subsidies and Transit in the Twin Cities

Prologue: everything in the world is bad and too complicated to talk about. Like at this point in 2017 AD, the word "reality" or "fact" set off loud alarms with bright flashing red lights, which seems bad, but I dunno what any of us are doing at this point in a general sense so--kkkzzzzz----static---fuzz---beeeeeeeeeeeep......

Now that that's out of the way, let's take a look-see at a recent "Reality Check" segment that WCCO did. You can watch or read it here. I tried to embed the video, but the websites of our local TV news stations are awful, unusable nightmares.

The segment is, in theory, friendly to Team Transit in that it points out, correctly, that our new light rail lines run at lower operating subsidies than our bus routes, after it claims that the suburban express routes have the highest per ride subsidy in the system. If you did not click the link, that is fine, for I have screenshotted them.

Those specific numbers are correct, but the overall point is...wrong? Hate to criticize the media when they're kind of trying to counter the Bad Guys in the legislature, but here's the chart they link to in the article...

Hmmmm. Well, the suburban express routes clearly do not have the highest subsidy. Lots to digest, and it's muddied a bit because there aren't necessarily crystal clear distinctions between the different types of transit that our many operators operate (separate and inefficiently) in the Twin Cities. Also why is this so old? 2014? I was 11 in 2014.

Types of Routes

We've got like...five different things going on here, which the chart helpfully breaks out for us.

  1. Express buses--the specifics vary, but these routes take passengers from the suburbs to the city, usually using a highway to get to downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul or the University of Minnesota campus. They generally operate during rush hour.
  2. Suburban local buses--these routes attempt to take passengers around the suburbs, or from suburb to suburb
  3. Urban local buses--your good stuff, the 6, the 17, the 21, the routes that provide local service in Minneapolis or St. Paul or the first ring 'burbs
  4. Light rail--the Blue and Green Lines
  5. Commuter rail--the Northstar Line from downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake

Plus I guess Metro Mobility is a whole other category, but its financial woes are a whole separate thing that for sure won't be addressed well.

Who's Getting That Government Cheese

I mean, Northstar, at a whopping and astronomical $18.31 subsidy per ride, is clearly the most subsidized thing in the system on a per ride basis. Maybe building bad transit is worse than building no transit! Former Metropolitan Councilmember Annette Meeks wrote an op ed in the Star Tribune a couple weeks ago (that in general I'm sure is in bad faith) and she names the Northstar operating subsidy as a reason to not invest in rail at all. Northstar is a great lesson that no one in a position of power in the Twin Cities will heed I bet.

The suburban local routes are the second most subsidized, at on average $5.22 per ride. That varies a lot among routes and providers. Due to some bananas laws that happened a few decades ago, suburban municipalities have the ability to opt out of Metro Transit and instead operate their own, separate systems.

SouthWest transit overall has a...$50.30 per ride subsidy on its local routes between locations in the 'burbs. That's insane and might be wrong? But also, who the hell would take the bus from Eden Prairie to Shakopee? You live somewhere where you have to have a car and parking is free everywhere and there's no traffic. Here is a play-by-play account of the Life and Times of the New Route 638 Bus in the Southwest Metro, written by me, a giant idiot:

Don't go to grad school. Anyway, suburban local routes are very expensive to run because they tend to be empty.

Next, you have suburban express buses that run to the core cities from the 'burbs. These are operated by Metro Transit as well the suburban opt out providers, depending on what suburb you're coming from. As the WCCO piece explains, their average operating subsidy comes in at $3.86 per ride. And now is a good time to start thinking a little more critically about all of this. The specific operating subsidy is $3.86, but there are many positive externalities to transit use, though also there are costs that tend to be hidden in other places.

The positive externalities might include things like, say, property taxes. About 40% of workers take transit to their jobs in downtown Minneapolis, which is pretty darn good. Because of that, we don't need a 278 story parking ramp (or many smaller ramps), and we're able to support higher-intensity, higher-value uses downtown that are taxed more. The IDS Center, for example, houses thousands of workers and pays about $11 million a year in property taxes, while a full block parking ramp a few blocks away pays about $1.5 million a year in property taxes. Plus people on the express buses probably listen to less talk radio and refresh Gay Instagram more safely, which is good for society, and so on.

On the other hand, there are lots of capital (construction) costs associated with our express buses. For one, we build large park-and-ride structures out in the second ring suburbs, and then let people park in them for free. Any given $8 million spent to build a parking ramp isn't necessarily going to break any budgets, but it does add up.

It's always helpful to think about whole systems...I ride local route buses a lot, and I pay for that, and I also pay taxes, and I also don't have a car. My overall transportation spending is pretty low. Other people maybe have two cars, use those for all their non-work trips, take an express bus to work to save money on downtown parking, and pay taxes to support free parking ramps in the suburbs, and so on. And then of course both of us pay taxes to build $640 million dollar bridges across the St. Croix for Wisconsin taxpayers. It's all very complicated.

Next up in the subsidy ranking are local route buses, which run at about a $3.16 per ride subsidy. That varies a decent amount among routes; back in 2011 my very B+ senior paper was a comparison between our suburban transit providers and Metro Transit, and I got a per route subsidy ranking for all of them and have not been able to get that again since. Certainly there are times of day where some routes would make money if they were operated by themselves, but it's all connected, and you kind of have to run the less efficient routes to make people comfortable enough to give up a car to use the more efficient routes. It's all a system!

And then, yes, our light rail lines, which run with fairly low operating subsidies, about $1.84 per ride. Most of Metro Transit's operating expenses, about 70%, come from salaries. So being able to easily transport a couple hundred people with only one driver is going to drive down your costs. This, of course, does not include capital (construction) costs. And those are very, very high. Public works projects in the United States tend to cost gigantic, enormous amounts of money compared to other western countries (see earlier link) and that's something a real New York Timesy journalist ought to be addressing. So our two light rail lines cost about $1.7 billion together, which is a lot, and if we're being intellectually honest, it's hard to separate that from their ongoing operating costs, which are completely separate from that initial investment.

The Point of the Public Sector

You've got to think about those complicated externalities that we talked about earlier. Everything costs money. Living the bus life is good for the environment. But even if your social connections are forcing you, a person who has read this far in this blog, to pretend that the public won't have to pay to relocate everyone in South Florida in 20 years, I mean, elementary school teachers and park rangers don't...make money. As a society we acknowledge that there are some things that we all should pool our money together to support because it's probably a good idea.

Roads? Those generally don't pay for themselves, even with the gas tax. You know what's expensive is building $200 million dollars worth of freeway into farmland and then building out a sewer line to that area and then a new fire station and police station and schools and parks and arterial roads and a library and a city hall and so on in an area that has...15,000 people in a 30 square miles in a third ring suburb like Otsego. Shoot, there are 15,000 people in Whittier and they already have all that in less than a square mile. And a lot of those folks can live without the added expense of a car. In the whole universe of spending, a lot less money is being spent on getting people around and to and from Whittier than Otsego.

Infrastructure costs money! If we aren't completely full of it, we would decide that places where infrastructure is deployed more efficiently are places that are worth more intensive public investment.

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