Sunday, January 06, 2013

Even If You Don't Ride It, You Use It.

[Updated 1/8/13]

I have been a supporter of passenger rail in Utah for many years.  I have been a passive supporter of public transit in general for just as long, but now, as an employee of UTA (Utah Transit Authority) I am a BIG supporter.  For a few days now I have been thinking in depth about a tweet I saw from a friend who was commenting on someone else's twitter post:
The original tweet:
That night I sent a quick response with my feelings to see what the authors thought.  My initial reaction was that yes, taxpayers subsidize public transit, specifically in this case, commuter rail, but that subsidizing rail doesn't necessarily mean waste:
The original author stood fast to his opinion in his response to me:
I was enjoying the exchange of thoughts and I wanted to respond with my counter argument, but the futility of trying to compress my thoughts into twitter posts made me give up on that idea.  So I decided to try to flesh out my opinions in long form here on the blog.

The core of my feeling about public transit in general is that there is value in it, even if you, yourself, do not use it.  I also feel that it is not a travel solution for everyone.  I do not believe we should expect everyone to ride it and vice versa.  Nor do I feel that the purpose of public transits existence is to be the sole travel solution for everyone.

There are those for whom rail is not more time consuming or more expensive.  We could go back to using buses and express routes as we did before commuter rail existed, but we did not move a fraction of the passengers we move with rail.  I do not know the cost of trains or of passenger cars, but I do know that the Gillig buses we see most commonly on the city streets cost roughly $0.4 million and $0.5 million each and burn fuel at around 4 MPG.  The concept of rial travel in general is that it is more fuel efficient to move more people at once in one vehicle than to move many smaller vehicles.  Also, we need to consider that transit, while utilizing public funds, is still a business.  How many people (especially in the culture of the Wasatch Front) never considered using buses but quickly adopted the appeal of riding the train?

Each taxpayer contributes to public transit whether we ride it or not.  But we each benefit from it's existence and sustenance on taxes regardless of weather we ride it.  If you run a business, your employees may ride transit.  As a business operator, you may not want your staff to commute in cars and therefore deal with the logistics of employee vehicles.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints encourages it's employees to take transit downtown to alleviate traffic and parking issues. The Church is one of the biggest contributors to ridership.  SkyWest provides similar options to its staff.  The company (at one point anyway) would allow team members working downtown to chose between a parking pass or a transit pass. How many of us benefit from not having those vehicles in rush hour traffic or clogging up downtown streets?  The same is true for the University of Utah, Westminster and Salt Lake Community colleges.  Students, faculty and support staff in around their campuses are encouraged to take transit.  We may be paying part of the cost for those people to ride transit, but remember, those people (or their employers) are also contributing to the cost and we all benefit from the use of public transit.

Can we find ways to reduce the public's contribution to transit?    I think so. And I think we should.  It is my understanding we already pay fewer taxes to public transit that almost anywhere and have a model system (that municipalities across the country come to study.)  Even so, I want to keep as much of my own money as I can.  The less I give to governments at all levels, the more I have to effect my community.  That said, there are indeed worthy and necessary expenditures in transportation and infrastructure and public transit is one.

[UPDATE 1/8/13]
Ben Horsley clarified his views about rail and public transit in two twitter posts earlier this week:


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