Public Transit Debate Pits City Against Suburbs

A squabble about D.C. area public transportation fees highlights some interesting issues.

[D]uring a three-hour special session that highlighted the competing interests of the District and its suburban neighbors, board members traded accusations about which riders would be hurt most by the latest proposal: suburban subway riders who pay to park, or city residents who mostly take the bus and don’t have to worry about parking.

Jim Graham, a D.C. Council member who represents Ward 1, said he was concerned about low-income residents who live in the District and rely on Metrobus. He said he would not support any proposal that increased bus fare. Instead, he said, the fees for parking should go up. He said it was “offensive” that the proposed increase for parking was only 50 cents when the market rate for parking is much higher.

That prompted criticism from suburban board members. “There are poor people in all the jurisdictions who take buses to all the sectors,” said Catherine M. Hudgins, a Fairfax County supervisor who represents Virginia. “There is a perception that the District is the only place that has poor people,” she said.

I’m now commuting into D.C. on a near-weekdaily basis. According to GoogleMaps, the office is 13.5 miles from the house. I can usually drive there in 45-60 minutes during off-peak hours, although it can sometimes take much longer if there’s an accident. I can park in the garage next to my office for the day for $12. Conversely, I can drive 15-20 minutes to a Metro station, pay $4 to park, wait as long as 15 minutes for a train, pay another $2.65 to get two blocks from the office 35-50 minutes later, followed by a 5-10 minute walk to the office.

So, in order to save $2.70 (plus a nominal amount of gasoline), it would cost me 30-75 minutes each day for the round trip, plus the privacy and autonomy I enjoy in my own vehicle. Given that I earn enough that $3 is poor compensation indeed for that much of my time, I drive unless there’s a really good reason not to.

And they’re about to raise the rates for Metro fares and parking, further skewing the calculus in the direction of “drive.”

There seems to be an underlying assumption made by the officials in the report above that public transportation should pay for itself through fees. That’s a rather strange notion when the alternative to suburbanites parking and taking public transit into the District is more people driving and clogging up the roads, which are heavily subsidized by tax dollars.

Unless they figure out a way to create express trains to get people into D.C. from the far suburbs with making 19 stops in between, they’re probably not going to attract people like me to Metro. If, however, they decided to subsidize Metro station parking so that the cost savings of public transit vice driving was more substantial (say, $7 a day instead of $3) they would almost certainly attract far more lower middle class passengers.

That would be good for most all concerned. It would help alleviate traffic and thus cut highway construction and maintenance costs considerably. It would reduce demand for gasoline, helping stabilize prices and giving a great boon to those on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. It would reduce pollution from emissions. Presumably, there would be people harmed as well, such as those in the auto repair business but the aggregate benefits would far outweigh that.

Yet, rather clearly, that’s not how urban planners are thinking.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Urban area mass transit is a classic case of too many oars in the water. What is the purpose of mass transit? Possibilities include:

    1) employ people
    2) aid to the poor
    3) reduce commuting traffic congestion
    4) reduce pollution/emissions

    and so on. Unfortunately, these objectives compete with one another and the result is a negotiation which results in none of the objectives being reached.

  2. DC Loser says:

    I solved that problem by getting a job 15 minutes from home and avoiding the commute altogether

  3. Patrick T McGuire says:

    I feel for y’all. I drive the 5.5 miles to work in about 15 minutes, park under a cottonwood tree for free, walk the 100 yards to the office in a few minutes. And I live in the second largest city in the state.

  4. John Burgess says:

    I, too, feel for you all, including Patrick. I walk all of 25 steps from my bedroom to my office, passing the kitchen and grabbing my coffee on the way.

    I use a tank of gas ever six or so week. Don’t need a bus here, but I use them regularly when I’m in DC. There are good routes between where I stay and where I need to go. Taxis pick up the slack.

  5. Andy says:

    The DC area is a public transportation disaster zone, in my opinion. On the other hand, this is true for most American cities.

    A proper gas tax that begins to account for all of the negative externalities of driving (and the attendant sprawl) is the best solution. Chaotic, semi-top down transportation planning requiring coordination between 10+ governmental bodies (like in the DC metro area) is probably the worst.

  6. Dale says:

    When I go to my office in Crystal City, I drive 10 mins to the train station where I park for free, spend $6 to take the VRE (Virginia Railway Express) for a 45 min ride and then a 2 min walk to my office. It would take about 50 mins to drive assuming I picked up slugs (1 1/2 hours without slugs) and then would cost me anywhere from $7 to $18 to park for the day. For me, the extra time spent waiting on a train or walking is well worth the trouble as I don’t have to deal with the aggravation of sitting in traffic and I’m able to read or catch up on sleep. The only downside is being tied to the train schedule.

  7. iftheshoefits says:

    James, you’re not looking at the cost accounting very accurately.

    If you do the math of what it takes to operate a vehicle, normally the cost per mile when all gasoline, maintenance, insurance, depreciation, etc. is in the range of 30-45 cents per mile for the type of vehicle I assume that you drive. Since you live in a very expensive cost of living area, you’re probably on the high end, let’s assume about 40 cents per mile.

    The economics suddenly look a bit different, you’re now saving about $15 a day. On top of that, you must pay taxes on the additional income that you need to earn in order to cover those costs, I’m guessing at a marginal tax rate (all taxing entities combined) of at least 35%, maybe higher. Now we’re getting in the $20-25 per day range. Still chump change for some of us, I suppose, but not all of us. If you could be dropped off at the transportation stop, you might even be able to live with one less vehicle, freeing up even more time and money.

    I jumped off the treadmill a few years ago for reasons such as this and have no regrets. Many people will make choices such as you do, but there are entirely different ways of looking at urban/suburban economics as they presently play out.

  8. djneylon says:

    in my case, I live (literally) a hundred from the city of Detroit. I drive four blocks to get on a freeway, drive about 15 minutes (7 miles), then drive seven blocks to work. My car is paid for, I get thirty miles to the gallon. I would have to pay registration and insurance at the same rates whether I drive to work or not. I spend a dollar a day for parking. My travel cost to work is, round trip, (at $3 a gallon for gas) $2.50 and 40 minutes round trip. If I rode a bus, I would have to walk two blocks to catch the bus (I am 51 with asthma and arthritis), spend 45 minutes on the bus; walk two blocks to go to work; coming home, walk four blocks to catch the bus, stand halfway home, sit the rest on a 45 minute trip (after waiting at the bus stop for 20 minutes), then walk a block home. Now, riding the bus would cost $3.00 each day, 90 minutes travel time and walking nine blocks in rain, snow, heat, cold. And, I could not even get to work one day a week (I work alternate weekends and the service does not coordinate with my work hours). So, let’s see, pay 50 cents more a day to double my commute, spend a fourth of it standing, and hike nine blocks. I’m sorry, what passes for mass transit is not an option. And that’s not even figuring what my time is worth (my boss say’s $16 an hour).

  9. jeff b says:

    djneylon: all you have proved is that your car trip is heavily subsidized. You drive on a free, subsidized public highway and I don’t know where you park but at $1/day someone is losing their shirt. Bus trips can appear more expensive on their face because, for whatever reason, the public demands reduced subsidy for public transport while ignoring the massive subsidy given to the private car.

    iftheshoefits: you mentioned taxes, but the already-heavily-subsidized car driver also receives a benefit of up to $300 per month on a pre-tax spending account for parking and tolls. The amount of the benefit depends on you tax bracket, of course.

  10. Grewgills says:

    Mass transit done well is great.
    Within an hour I can be just about anywhere in Amsterdam, Den Haag, or Rotterdam for less than 10 euro. The time is about the same whether I bike or bus to the station (two blocks to the stop or 15 min on the bike).
    Within three hours I can be most anywhere in a country about the size of Virginia for less than 30 euro.

  11. James Joyner says:

    If you do the math of what it takes to operate a vehicle, normally the cost per mile when all gasoline, maintenance, insurance, depreciation, etc. is in the range of 30-45 cents per mile for the type of vehicle I assume that you drive

    But I’d have to drive to the Metro station, anyway. And I’m only driving 13.5 miles total.

    I jumped off the treadmill a few years ago for reasons such as this and have no regrets.

    and

    I walk all of 25 steps from my bedroom to my office, passing the kitchen and grabbing my coffee on the way.

    I just jumped back on after 14 months working from home for myself. What with the stairs, it was more than 25 steps but, certainly, the commute was good.

    I’m telecommuting one day a week now. I’ll get it up to 2 in a couple of months.

    I drive the 5.5 miles to work in about 15 minutes, park under a cottonwood tree for free, walk the 100 yards to the office in a few minutes.

    Do you work in a foreign policy think tank in the nation’s capital?

  12. The Doctor says:

    At a mere 13.5 miles, why not get on a bike and ride in. Its cheaper and more efficient than any other option.

    The short distance also means that your actual running costs are probably higher than 40c/mile cited in a previous post.

  13. djneylon says:

    Gee, I don’t klnow, but don’t the taxes I pay to the state for my gas (here in michigan, we pay sales tax on top of gas tax) and my registration help pay for this road (that isn’t exactly new), as do all the other motorists and trucks I share it with? And the bus fare is probably subisdized too, since mass transit usually doesn’t turn a profit? As to what I pay for parking, this is the first job in my life that has paid parking (I work at a hospital). If I wanted to, I could park on the street nearby and pay zero for parking. The fact remains — mass transit is here is inconvenient, uncomfortable and inefficient.

  14. DC Loser says:

    You take your life into your own hands riding a bike or even a motorcycle during rush hour in this town.

  15. James Joyner says:

    You take your life into your own hands riding a bike or even a motorcycle during rush hour in this town.

    No kidding. It’s dangerous enough in a car.

    And the DC bus drivers are the worse. It’s like driving in the 3rd World somewhere — they just ignored the stoplights, merge into oncoming traffic, pull into crowded lanes, etc. Just maddening.

  16. jeff b says:

    djneylon: the taxes don’t cover road building and maintenance, enforcement, and other costs, and they don’t even begin to pay for the externalities generated. Delucchi found that, nationwide, gas taxes would need to be raised by about 50c/gal to bring revenues up to the same level as costs. And Delucchi’s study does not address free and subsidized parking, only roads.

    Public transport is also subsidized, more or less depending on jurisdiction, and of course the quality of the service provided varies wildly. Here in San Francisco we have an almost acceptable bus service and regional rail. New York has stellar public transport. Houston has almost none. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

  17. hln says:

    Bike during rush hour in a major city with gear (presumbaly business attire you’re either wearing or carrying) – no way.

    James, in your case, I would think the greater cost would be in time than in money. Which is where the express train comes in to play. If mass transit could offer a significant reduction in time to cover suburban miles into urban areas, then we’re talking.

    St. Louis is making recent noise about a 13 mile line from one of the rough sections of the city (as a destination???) down into the south St. Louis white suburbanite county area – that’s in the news today. It’s nuts. 1 billion 2007 dollars.

    Anyone ever heard of buses?

    hln

  18. Grewgills says:

    Bike during rush hour in a major city with gear (presumbaly business attire you’re either wearing or carrying) – no way.

    It’s not that bad if there is bike infrastructure. If you let on mopeds and scooters just about anybody can use it even if it is moderately hilly.