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.