Saturday, December 16, 2006

Metro Fare Hikes are Counter-Intuitive

In this country, the gospel of the market reigns supreme, often to the detriment of smart and far-thinking policy. Witness the recent proposal by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (aka "Metro") to raise fares during rush hour or peak time to as much as 2.10 to head off a $116 million budget deficit. On the one hand, a good public transportation system is worth the money from its riders, and the Metro is one of the better public transportation systems in the country. On the other hand, it should be expected that a public transportation system is not a money maker and is often a money loser.

What Metro is losing, however, is gained back both financially and in terms of quality of life: in the form of decreased traffic, less roadwork, and less pollution. It is in drivers' as well as rail and bus commuters' interest to have a good public transportation system, even if that means paying a little extra in taxes for it. There needs to be some sort of understanding though, that Metro is not a money-maker, that it will often lose money, and that public good services such as public transportation often do lose money. The alternatives are worse. When Metro riders say that the potential fare hikes will push them to drive to work, Metro faces the vicious cycle where it has to continue to raise fares to make up for lost revenue because of commuters who no longer ride Metro because the fares got too high.

Metro is applying incentives to change the nature of the demand of Metro riders by proposing to increase fares during high peak hours (5 to 9:30 am and 3 to 7 pm on weekdays) to encourage riders to travel in off-hours, but as letter writers to the Post have said, it's pretty difficult for most people to change their traveling times. Most of us have to be at work within the peak traveling times. Metro also might charge a higher fare on people who get off at heavy traffic stations like Farragut North, but again, there is little most people can do to change their destination train station. Market calculations of supply-demand and incentives are not intuitive to public transportation like the Metro. Ideally, the business district in D.C. would be more spread out and workers would have flex time, but as yet, peoples' working patterns are pretty rigid.

Edited to add: Virginia legislators need to increase the revenue they pay into the Metro, especially considering it services so much of Northern Virginia, and Virginia pays significantly less in taxes than D.C. or Maryland. (I'm willing to say this as a Virginia resident).

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