Sunday, November 29, 2015

Free Mass Transit For Everyone!

Maybe not for New York City where that is the accepted (and best) way to get around but what about cities that are currently struggling with useless mass transit suffering from very low acceptance rates and monumental traffic jams?  Seattle now has the 7th worst traffic in nation nearly doubling time spent sitting in traffic since 2012.  In my job which started in 2012 and requires daily travel thru out the Puget Sound Region, I can concur. The difference in slowdowns has AT LEAST doubled for me.

My Sister recently moved to Graham from her house in Lacey because her 14 mile commute to her job in Lakewood was frequently taking nearly an hour in the evenings. Now this has always happened but previously it was maybe a few times a month. But this year, it was the case a few times a week.

Problem is with Seattle's tech industry booming, it is expected to get much worse and soon. Some studies predict an additional 600,000 residents moving into the eastern county area in the next 20 years Since the rate of our expansion of the freeway system in the area is a far cry from being as "speedy" as a Snail's pace, we are basically in big trouble.

It cost each commuter roughly $1137 to travel the Seattle area which makes me think that maybe we need to reshuffle the money a bit here and there?  Mass transit in Seattle which is seeing a huge ridership boom still runs far below capacity on many runs. Costing 1.2 Billion a year to fund, it brought in 150 Million in fares for 2014.  Well, maybe we need to double road tax revenues with higher gas taxes, City entry fees (Like London for example) where the cost of driving your personal car becomes an expense that must be balanced with convenience.  Add to the mix; making all mass transit options in the Seattle Metro area completely free.

Seattle recently added an "HOT" (High Occupancy Toll) lane which essentially allows single drivers to use high occupancy lanes for a fee.  Drivers pay anywhere from 75 cents to $10 to drive in one of the HOV lanes. This 17 mile stretch generally saves at least 30 minutes for the single driver willing to pay the toll but frequently that savings can exceed one hour. During the worst of times, the average commute time can exceed 70 minutes for normal traffic.  Another twist is that for  free "HOV" access (High Occupancy Vehicle) during peak times, 3 occupants instead of the normal two must be in the vehicle even further reducing traffic in the HOT lanes which also reducing commuting times.

As much as we want to think the HOT idea was invented by the very well to do (The Seattle tech industry has created one of the highest concentrations of millionaires in the country) its actual purpose was to encourage others to use public transportation or carpooling to reduce congestion.  What I like about the program is that a portion of the tolls collected will be earmarked for I-405 projects.

According to a study in 2013, drivers only fund roughly 51% of the road maintenance costs while the other 49% comes from the general fund. IOW; non-drivers pay a goodly amount so we can drive cheaper. Now I could kinda sorta grudgingly accept that if the subsidization of  mass transit was the reason for the imbalance but that is not the case. Mass transit is generally subsidized thru its own funding separate from the highway fund  Nationwide, mass transit fares (Amtrak excepted) cover 21% of its expenses.  Off the 155 Billion spent on the roads, state and local governments ponied up 37 Billion. Obviously each state provides a different percentage of that and one can assume that sparsely populated areas pay a much smaller percentage than a heavily populated Puget Sound Region would but there is no getting around the fact that we drivers are directly responsible for a 77 Billion dollar shortage in our basic costs to drive our cars and since this is 2010 dollars (from the study) today's cost is actually much higher.

From another study, the imbalance is actually much worse.  Despite our subsidizing 79% of public transit's cost, its only dinging us $50 per household (in 2008 dollars) while road costs per household (which includes NON DRIVERS) is averaging $779 dollars.. (current estimates are now running near $1000)

All this makes me think that the reason we drive solo is because we cannot afford to drive any other way! Are we simply pawns in a grand scheme orchestrated by Big Oil to insure our continuing dependence on oil?  Someone had to create the atmosphere that has so successfully masked the true cost of owning and driving a car.

But too much of a "good thing" is always going to bite us in the butt. Yes, I am addicted to the convenience of my car.  No,  our mass transit system does not even come close to covering my needs in order to do my job but what if I had to find a job based on not having a car? Would I be so much worse off?  That is a good question because my job is hardly a prize!

Either way, I am not comfortable with the way the money is going. I value the convenience my car brings me but I also know first hand the struggles of people who don't have a car. We need to investigate other options. I would gladly pay more to drive and why not? My transportation expenses are only about 25% as much as most people. I will gladly go 50%!  :)  (ok, just kidding about that last comment... oh the 25% cost is correct though!)

Again, national averages will vary but what if we subsidized 100% of public transportation. Eliminated fares for everyone all the time.  This would likely take the per household cost to somewhere around $200-$250 and with the increase in ridership, that could balloon to $300-$400 per household. Oh ya, more taxes?? No way you say!! But at the same time, lets make drivers pay their "fare" share. This would reduce household taxes up to $1000.  So looks like a gain for the people who need it most.

A "mass transition" (hehehe...couldn't resist!) to mass transit will bring money, focus and more routes! What would seem like an insurmountable inconvenience making mass transit work for you would melt away like a glacier fighting global warming.  During the recession when gas prices were high, a lot of people were forced to mass transit because they could not afford to buy gas and guess what?? Many who initially complained that mass transit added 2 hours to their work day found that they were actually able to get work done making their jobs more manageable instead of less so. Others took naps making them more alert for the day ahead.  If anyone should be helping out with mass transit costs, it should be Kindle especially when considering how many people got caught up on their reading!

But what about us drivers?? We would be paying a TON more in costs. A huge gas tax increase would be the obvious first step. More HOT lanes and likely an addition of "congestion tax" a pay per day or mile tax for driving in the busier areas of the region. This will take a lot of drivers off the roads. The alternatives?

**Pay more in gas taxes probably adding up to over $1000 extra per year and fees to sit in traffic for hours . Estimated to be 67 hours per person in the Puget Sound Region last year and that delay is escalating fast!

**Pay a LOT more for the privilege of  driving the HOT lanes without showering.  This should keep the rich happy anyway since they won't give up their cars.

Sure it will be spendy but lets face it; we have been building up a debt to society for decades and its time to pay it back!

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