Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fare wars at Metro

You may have read in the Chronicle about the tiff between the Mayor and the Chairman of Metro over whether or not to consider eliminating fares. I've been a proponent of fare reduction or elimination for a while to maximize ridership and reduce traffic congestion, especially considering that fares are less than 20% of revenues at Metro (Bill King also had an op-ed advocating this a while back, predicting a possible 50% increase in ridership). The reality is that it would definitely postpone or eliminate much of the light rail plan without that revenue to cover the huge capital costs. But here is the argument on plus side, courtesy of my friend John:
  • Fares are only a small part of a budget that is mostly subsidy from the 1% sales tax.
  • The real measure of Metro's efficiency should be how many people they move per public dollar spent.
  • Eliminating fares would directly encourage ridership because of the lower price (and 'Free!' gives an extra bump).
  • Eliminating fares would also speed up trips by eliminating the delays as people pay during boarding, further encouraging ridership and allowing more rides for the same budget.
  • Eliminating fares would reduce expenses for fare collection, managing those rider cards, dealing with transfers, etc.
  • Thus, there is a plausible case for elimination of fares resulting in an increase in rides per dollar spent.
One counter-argument that comes up is homeless living on the buses. There are various strategies for addressing this problem, including forcing everybody off at each end of a bus route.

John concluded his email, "Obviously the actual strength of the argument depends on how the numbers work out, but it should totally be looked at." And I agree. I'd like to see an independent third-party - like maybe the Mayor's Metro committees - ballpark what might be possible with the elimination of fares and what the benefits might be. I think we could keep the Universities line, convert the other lines to free and frequent signature buses, and still be able to accommodate the increased demand from fare elimination, especially on express commuter buses - which would also reduce freeway traffic congestion. The benefits may be well worth the cost.

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At 8:29 PM, February 23, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I might also add that spending *more* public money on transit could also plausibly increase mobility-per-public-$. More frequent service, better connections, etc. should all increase ridership.

And I don't see why eliminating fares should necessarily mean that the level of service has to be scaled back at all. What about that 25% of the sales tax that currently goes to roads? That would replace the lost fares nicely. We could redirect that money back to transit, modestly increase service levels, eliminate fares, and massively increase ridership (and thus rides/$) all without any increase in taxes.


At 12:14 AM, February 24, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Some of the efficiency increases of free transit could be implemented within a non-free framework. For example, people could be allowed to board buses through all doors and pay after the bus starts moving, with random ticket inspections enforcing fare payments.

At 7:19 AM, February 24, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, that's the theory behind the rail line, but my understanding is that huge numbers of people are not paying because they know enforcement is so lax. I would expect the same on buses. Then there's the safety problem of people standing at a ticket machine while the bus is moving.

At 8:19 AM, February 24, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...


That 25% can't just be taken away from the local entities. METRO has been trying to do that, but they need to put it to a vote. Since the majority of people taxed by METRO's sales tax aren't serviced by metro, there is little chance of that money moving away from road construction.

The purpose of the 25% was recognizing this fact that METRO won't service a lot of the people they tax. Also, METRO has illegaly stop paying a lot of this to the City of Houston and we had an idiot mayor the last 6 years that didn't try to get that money. That could have gone to help repave a lot of old streets (which is relatively cheap) or do full repairs which also involve repairing drainage issues.

At 12:33 PM, February 24, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...


When you say it would need to be put to a vote, what kind of vote do you mean? I know that the Metro board would have to vote to stop spending transit taxes on road repairs, but do you mean there would also need to be an actual referendum? Has the "25%" ever been part of an actual law that the legislature or the public voted on? (This isn't a rhetorical question. I don't know the answer. But I thought that Mayor Lanier ran in part on this platform, and then used his mayoral appointments to the Metro board to make it happen, and that later mayors have always had the exact same powers to reverse it.)


At 2:26 PM, February 24, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

It's either a binding agreement with the municipal entities the 25% goes to or it was part of the creation of METRO. The most I've heard and read says it has to go to referendum. At minimum if no referendum is needed, at least a motion and pass of that motion by each municipal entity and Harris County is needed.

Either way, METRO doesn't have the power to take the money back, but since the COH is not challenging it, METRO is currently keeping much of the 25% anyway. There are several advocates challenging the city to get tough and force METRO to hand over the 25% the city should be getting. Harris County and the many other entities within METRO's service boundary are keeping their 25%.

At 5:19 PM, February 26, 2010, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...


Regarding the 25 percent general mobility monies in the Metro sales tax:

The November 2003 referendum long form ballot incorporates ballot language, in section 14, which states that Metro is to pay out the GM funding to the member municipalities, and to hold an election by January 2013 to determine the fate of the general mobility funding.

After reading the recent Houston Chronicle stories where "consideration" was being given to having Metro take GM monies back, I went to City Council recently and reminded them that this decision was not for Metro, nor for the Mayor, nor for Council to make. That decision is to be left to the voters.


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