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The Argument for Ending Public Transportation Subsidies

In one of the biggest neighborhood block parties San Francisco has ever seen, residents from across the Bay Area headed downtown this past weekend to celebrate the grand opening of the Salesforce Transit Center and its 5.4 acre rooftop park. Touted as “the Grand Central Station of the west,” the long-awaited regional transit hub has been in the works for nearly twenty-years and under construction for eight years. Although the street-level terminal has been servicing some Muni lines since June, last weekend’s event celebrated the opening of the rest of the facility and rooftop park to the general public.

Officials are now trying to figure out how to come up with the $27.5 million a year needed to run the three-block-long mega-bus station and park space. Apparently it will be automobile drivers crossing the bay’s seven state-owned bridges who will be handing over up to $17 million a year in additional toll money to subsidize the station in the short term. Public transportation subsidies are something the American public has become accustomed to.

In the middle of the last century urban transit was mostly private and profitable. But by the mid-sixties with declining ridership and worries about the industry’s long-term financial viability, Congress offered federal subsidies to cities and states that “municipalized” failing transit companies. By the 1970s, most transit companies were being operated by local governments. This takeover led to politicians seeing transit as a government aid program to help poor people who lack cars, rather than a vital transportation function.

It’s this welfare mentality that has led cities to allow public transportation to operate in the red. In most cities, less than half of operating costs are covered by fares, more than the vast majority of cities around the world. And that’s the downside to viewing public transportation as welfare — it prevents us from charging high enough fares to provide good service. Even systems with extensive networks often are forced to operate on limited hours and frequency, thus limiting transit to those who are too poor to own cars.

Will the public ever allow cities to charge higher fares while still making sure poor people have access to transportation? That’s what’s happening in other places around the world. In Paris, for instance, each municipality is legally obligated to pay the transit agency the difference between its fares and operating costs. In Seattle and elsewhere, cities have experimented with reduced rates for the poor.

San Francisco’s Salesforce Transit Center is looking at an $8 million deficit next year, so Muni and AC Transit have agreed “to fund whatever the gap is,” according to Mark Zabaneh, executive director of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which operates the building. Is this the model we want for our public transportation? When will politicians and the public stop viewing mass transit as social welfare and start charging fares that are commensurate with the cost of operating a reliable and efficient transit system?

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.