Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Proposed WMATA fare increases (DC region)

Slide, Metropolitan Mass Transit Planning: Towards a Hierarchical and Conceptual Framework
Slide from my presentation, Metropolitan Mass Transit Planning: Towards a Hierarchical and Conceptual Framework.

Pressed once again to make budget projections, WMATA has proposed transit fare increases for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. See "Proposed Metro budget that would raise fares calls for hiring of 1000 workers" and "Metro board considers fare proposal, next budget" from the Washington Post.
wmata, Metro fare increase proposals
Graphic from the Washington Post.

One of the proposals is to get rid of the $9 all-day pass, which is designed to meet the needs of visitors, and instead only offer the use of temporary subway fare cards--single purchase fare cards purchased for one time use--at rates comparable to the cost of a railroad train ride, rather than a typical in-region transit trip on subway, light rail, or bus.

The rates would change to $6 one way for a trip during rush periods, and $4 during nonrush periods. By way of example, $6 is how much MARC charges for travel to DC from the BWI Airport, 30 miles away (although that fare is going up too).

This changes the pricing scheme significantly, and makes ridership uneconomic for many people, especially groups. Why pay $18-$24 for a group of four to travel one way when you can just drive? Paying for parking in a parking structure for an entire day costs about this much or less, and wouldn't trigger a similar cost driving back. Or taxi rides become more competitive price-wise, etc.

In either case, more vehicles, rather than fewer vehicles on the regions roads is the likely outcome. It's a poor use of physical space too.
Amount of space required to transport the user the same number of passengers by car, bus, or bicycle
Amount of space required to transport the user the same number of passengers by car, bus, or bicycle. Graphic from the Urban Ambassadors, Des Moines, IA. (Note that when I first acquired this graphic a couple years ago, the Urban Ambassadors didn't have a website, just a Facebook page. Their website is worth a visit.

Charging exorbitant rates to visitors is not an unusual revenue generating strategy for communities. It's done with hotel rooming taxes, rental car usage taxes, and parking structure taxes in many cities, and in DC particularly, the tax on restaurant meals--10%--is much higher than in other places, in large part because of the belief that more of the tax is paid for by nonresidents than residents.

Typically, most of these taxes are used to support convention centers, tourism marketing, and related activities, although parking taxes tend to be a general fund revenue item.

So there is a precedent for looking to tag visitors with exorbitant prices to use the subway system, which already charges more for casual users versus SmarTrip card users.

But the fundamental issue has more to do with what is the purpose of the transit system:

• Is the transit system supposed to be used to get people to and from work, ideally where the workers have subsidized transit benefits (e.g., federal government workers are eligible for free transit benefits worth about $125/month)?

• Is the transit system supposed to be used as a mobility congestion management tool to reduce traffic and the need to build and maintain more roadways?

• Is the transit system seen as an element of a community's positioning and economic development strategy, shaping land use in sustainable ways so that the need to travel is reduced by placing more activities within walking, biking, and transit distance?

• Is transit a service of last-resort, for people who can't afford to own an automobile, so high subway fares are used to push low-income riders to buses?;

• Should a fare system be developed that supports the creation of "fare zones" and passes, so that transit use is encouraged, rather than discouraged, in terms of the cost of any one trip; etc.,

and how does that influence how the system is funded, and the strategy for fare revenue management?

These kinds of issues are discussed in the past blog entry "(Sort of a repeat) Without the right transportation planning framework, metropolitan areas are screwed, and that includes the DC area."

For the region, consideration of the transit system as the primary element of civic and transportation infrastructure within the region, as the leading means for shaping mobility and land use decision making, congestion management, and for creating great places and promoting high quality of life is paramount.

Therefore, how to fund the system in a manner that the WMATA budget planners aren't forced on an almost annual basis to engage in a kind of fare-setting "legerdemain" just to come up with the necessary funds ought to be the metropolitan area's chief priority right now.

This problem isn't unique to WMATA. Most transit operators nationally have the same kind of funding desperation because of drop off in local and state funding as a result of the recession, as well as drop offs in local tax receipts such as sales taxes and real estate transaction taxes and other taxes which have been used to support local transit operations.

But WMATA does have some special circumstances.

In the face of region's loss of trust with regard to WMATA after the train crash in 2009, which resulted in the deaths of nine passengers, I recommended that the transit system and the region engage in a high profile transportation planning initiative focused on rebuilding the region's understanding of the role and primacy of transit as the main engine of growth, mobility, and prosperity.

St. Louis regional transit planning process, slide.

Other regions have/had similar initiative's such as Chicago's Moving Beyond Congestion Strategic Plan, the Go Ohio transportation planning initiative in Ohio, and Keep PGH Moving in Pittsburgh (although that campaign is more focused on obtaining state funding for the local transit system to reduce the number of cutbacks).

While people are familiar with special local tax initiatives to support transit expansion, such as Los Angeles' Measure R, clearly the DC region--DC, Maryland, and Virginia--need to consider such initiatives as a source of funds to help get WMATA onto a new track when it comes to fares and revenue management.

-- Center for Transportation Excellence, a research group that supports transit infrastructure funding and election initiatives
-- History of BART transit system, San Francisco Bay region, including discussion of how sales taxes became a source of system funding

This graphic, "Traffic Trouble: How Transit Cuts Will Affect Your Daily Commute" from the Pittsburgh City Paper, is brilliant in how it communicates that transit service is vitally important to a region, and perfectly illustrates my point in the very first image above, about how Level of Service and Level of Quality decisions about a transit system are too important to leave to the transit operator, which first and foremost is driven by budgetary concerns.

WMATA needs to reposition the conversation about funding so that these kinds of desperation moves with regard to the fare structure can be avoided.

Traffic troubles, impact of transit cuts, Pittsburgh

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