what if a city wants more transit than its neighbors, but they’re all in one transit agency?

Large North American transit agencies generally have some revenue raising authority over an enormous and diverse urban area, and feel obliged to serve the same enormous area with something that can be justified as an "equitable" distribution of service.  (As I explain in detail in Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit, there's no objective definition of "equitable," but that's another story.)

Most agencies rely on their voters to approve their basic revenue raising authority.  So what happens if the voters over the whole agency area give transit a resounding "no," but parts of the area — a core city for example — does value transit and is willing to pay for it?  And what should happen in the many urban regions where the whole region will pay for a low level of service but certain communities within it — usually including the core city — want to pay for a higher level of service?

In many areas, it's legally impossible for a transit agency to impose a higher rate of taxation of part of its service area and deliver a higher level of service in response.  But why not?  The ability to respond to local needs and desires is the core of what we usually think of as successful local government. 

This, for example, is the current situation of Pierce Transit in the Tacoma, Washington area, which covers an urban county south of Seattle.  Voters over the whole service area have refused to support new sales tax revenues that would present a truly devastating service cut.  The agency has already shrunk its boundaries to remove some communities who did not value transit service and that were especially expensive to serve.  Now, conversation is turning to an "Enhanced Transit Zone," which would allow parts of the region that value transit more to tax themselves more at higher rates for better transit service.

But this story is not about one agency, because it goes to why core cities whose people would value more transit are often prevented from getting it.  The default approach of regional transit agencies has been for the agency to impose one level of taxation everywhere, and then to have endless arguments about how to distribute that resource over vastly dissimilar communities where some think of transit as critical and others don't.  The result is almost always a special problem for older core cities, because as I argue in Chapter 10, core cities need more service per capita than newer suburbs.  Because regional transit boards are often dominated by suburban interests that have trouble voting for what they see as disproportionate investment in the core city, it's mathematically inevitable that under big regional agencies, core cities will be underserved relative to their values and demand.  The result is typically lots of empty buses running in outer suburbs while core city buses are overcrowded and turning people away.

The only solution I see to this problem is for core cities to be ready to start subsidizing transit service directly, over and above the level that their regional government can fund, to ensure that they get their fair share.  (In theory they could also rebel and secede from the regional agency, but good networks are so fused across multiple cities that it's very hard to take them apart at city limits without massive losses in efficiency and usefulness.)

Funding of enhanced transit by core city governments is starting to happen, if in some half-concealed ways.  The City of Portland, for example, directly subsidizes half of the operations of the Portland Streetcar, effectively creating an overlay of additional transit with its own operating funds.  The next step will be for core cities to find ways to fund growth in the overall level of service in their networks beyond what the regional transit agency can afford.

Sure, most transit agencies and city goverments face budget crises right now, but budget crises are as good a time as any to make hard choices about what a fare distribution of service will ultimately be.  One key idea is that state governments should quit prohibiting people from raising their taxes to pay for better transit service, if that is what they want to vote for.


17 Responses to what if a city wants more transit than its neighbors, but they’re all in one transit agency?

  1. M1EK February 25, 2013 at 8:49 am #

    This misplaced emphasis on regionalism ends up screwing the central city twice – first, they pay far more than their fair share on gas taxes (urban drivers far less likely to drive on roads that get gas tax funding); and now they have to pay far more than their fair share on transit taxes (suburbs get more than their sales taxes would merit).
    Then, just so we keep pretending to be good regional players, the city should tax themselves a third time to get transit up to where it should be already?

  2. jfruh February 25, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    Baltimore is sort of grappling with this problem by creating frequent “Circulator” buses in the city’s inner core. The Circulators are city-funded and operated separately from the regional MTA bus service. There isn’t a ton of good integration between the Circulators and MTA services as a result, though this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the the Circulators are free and so there’s no problems with fares or transfers that might otherwise arise.

  3. R A Fontes February 25, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    Yes, Portland “directly subsidizes half of the operations of the Portland Streetcar”, but that is supposed to be temporary. Its latest agreement with TriMet calls for the transit district to pay 85% of all operational costs after fares and promotions once TriMet gets its own financial mess in order. The agreement also permits TriMet to veto any proposed streetcar expansion.
    Through the last fiscal year, streetcar farebox recovery was only about 3% because of ultra-low fares and the “Free Rail Zone (FRZ)”. The system was actually making twice as much from advertising and promotions. Operational farebox recovery on TriMet services averaged 40%. The FRZ is gone – affecting both streetcar and TriMet’s own light rail – but streetcar continues its fire-sale fare policy. Just last year it made a deal with Portland State University to give all of its staff and student I.D. holders unlimited rides for what amounts to less than $2.25 each. Is TriMet really going to pay 85% of streetcar subsidies without requiring either that streetcar riders pay their fair share or that Portland to make up the difference?

  4. Jeff Wegerson February 25, 2013 at 11:02 am #

    Interesting points which have given me pause. I have always wondered about the “waste” in having two transit agencies here in Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority and the Regional Transit Authority. Now I am beginning to see logic in that separation.

  5. Beta Magellan February 25, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    Chicago deals with this by having urban and suburban handled by a separate agencies (CTA for the city, Pace and Metra for the rest)—although they’re under the umbrella of the RTA, in practice it doesn’t exercise much control. This works okay for buses (where there’s little overlap between urban and suburban service) and urban rail (the CTA extends into some of the denser northern and western suburbs, but it’s still in the inner ring). CTA and Pace also get along decently well—a lot of Pace routes terminate at suburban our outer-Chicago CTA stations and they’ve been cooperative on universal fares). Separate services have ended up being a fairly nice arrangement in this case.
    Where separate urban and suburban agencies doesn’t work is with commuter rail, which passes through dense neighborhoods but doesn’t do a good job of serving them, both due to institutional culture and the fact that Metra gets almost all its funding from the suburbs. There have been proposals (Sneeze! Gray and Gold Lines! Sneeze! Aaron Renn!) to rectify this, but they all require some sort of organizational rejigging to get the the city to fund additional Metra service, the RTA to exercise some force on Metra, or Metra to change its institutional culture. Since none of those items involves much (if any) ribbon-cutting (and most current Metra riders and suburban communities are fairly satisfied with their old-timey railroad service), it’s very hard to do.

  6. Morgan Wick February 25, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    “One key idea is that state governments should quit prohibiting people from raising their taxes to pay for better transit service, if that is what they want to vote for.” Like that’ll ever happen in Washington State, where this guy dominates the conversation about taxes! The Washington state legislature seems to have an almost fundamentally anti-urban attitude…the supposedly small-government types in Eastern Washington sure do love to interfere with how Western Washington wants to conduct its business!
    (It’s really a fundamentalist-libertarian attitude that says government is always bad borne of lack of experience with urbanity/lack of libertarian ideas for how to manage a city, but tell that to people on both sides of our American political climate who always see a conspiracy against them personally carried out by evil people as opposed to people with honest and justified beliefs…)
    What would really help is if the suburbs had a culture that told them that what’s good for the central city is good for the whole region… like that’ll ever happen.
    M1EK does seem to point towards a better solution, though – freeing up gas taxes to be used towards transit as well as roads and/or pointing out how sales tax revenue is actually distributed. It almost makes you wonder if some latent/residual racism/classism is involved (i.e. the center city is full of “those people”).

  7. Perkinsms February 25, 2013 at 11:47 am #

    Arlington, Virginia handles this by running its own local bus service and by developing the two streetcar corridors. The local buses are fare integrated into the regional smartcard, so it’s pretty easy to transfer to and from the heavy rail system.
    Another way the Washington, DC region develops level of service differences between the core and the fringes is for the core to offer to pay directly for increased service under a pilot program. After a couple of years of being locally funded, if the service meets various ridership metrics, then the service switches over to regional funding.
    This was used to extend the yellow line northward after the Northeast part of the city started to develop. Also it was used temporarily to extend the frequent service in the center of the Red line to the end points. After a while, Maryland opted to stop the extra funding for the red line.
    In our region, a locality is always welcome to directly fund whatever service they want, under non-regional funding. They pay the net cost of service.

  8. Dan Wentzel February 25, 2013 at 12:50 pm #

    Los Angeles County has many of these same problems.
    The City of West Hollywood voted 86% for Measure R in 2008, more than any other city. This was a 30-year sales tax increase to raise money for a whole host of transportation projects. They voted for this measure in hopes of eventually bringing Metrorail here.
    However, even though the county depends on votes in this part of the county to offset the less transit-friendly suburbs, and the higher than average sales tax revenue from this part of the county to help pay for rail projects elsewhere, West Hollywood is sadly likely to receive among the least benefit for its support and sales tax revenue.

  9. Alon Levy February 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

    How does Zurich make this work? My vague recollection is that each city’s share of the funding is proportional to how many train stops it gets per day (so, an hourly train that makes 3 station stops in each direction would be about 108), but other people here probably know this better than I do.

  10. Matthew February 25, 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    Massachusetts is also going through one of those “where’s the funding coming from?” stages and the idea of a regional tax has come up. I’m ambivalent about it. There already are municipal “assessments” which add up to about $120 million/year, which hasn’t really changed much about anything.
    The big question in my mind is: why should transit be funded regionally while roads get dedicated state-wide funding, or dip into the general funds for their repair and construction?
    Shouldn’t transportation funding be all regional, or all state-wide?
    Otherwise I fear the circumstance which M1EK describes: rural roads are subsidized by the city, but the city bears the burden for the transit system entirely on itself. And believe me, those rural legislators find it very easy to forget how much they are being subsidized by the city, but they are more than happy to complain about money spent to improve the city.

  11. spencerrecneps February 25, 2013 at 6:15 pm #

    Unless I’m mistaken, UTA (Salt Lake City) charges different sales tax rates in different counties depending on whether a county is served by rail or not.

  12. Ted K. February 26, 2013 at 8:23 am #

    Suggested edits :
    4th para. “present a truly devastating service cut.”
    Last para. “fare distribution of service will ultimately be.”

  13. Paul K McGregor February 26, 2013 at 8:42 am #

    I worked in two agencies where regional equity has been an issue. Dallas created a regional agency that cities could opt out of if they didn’t feel they were getting their fare share and a few have. The City of Irving always felt they were contributing a lot and not getting everything they contribute back. We as staff had to calculate miles and hours by jurisdiction and before the advent of GIS, it was a pain. Of course, now that rail is operating in all of the suburban communities, it is not as much of an issue.
    VTA in San Jose opted to invest a greater amount of limited resources to productive routes and keep a basic network in place for the suburban communities.
    There is a model of allowing the regional system to develop regional services and having county and/or municipal operators do more of the heavy lifting with more frequent service. This is the model used in Seattle, DC area, Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Wonder if we will see more of this in the future?

  14. Sam February 26, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    @Matthew: In Milwaukee, we’re financed primarily through the State Transportation Fund along with highways, which I think is probably the most equitable and sustainable way to fund transit. The problem is that anti-transit Republicans currently have gerrymandered their way into power in the statehouse and don’t have any problem cutting transit funding no matter the consequences, which is making local funding control a lot more attractive..

  15. Al Dimond February 26, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

    Of course, let’s remember again that freeways were jammed through the middle of American cities because the Federal government was funding big roads and urban legislators wanted their share. The only choices were to blow up massive swaths of the city and destroy local transportation or to be ignored while the feds funded massive sprawl projects.
    A better option: cities take that big road money and spend it on things that strengthen them, not destroy them.

  16. PeterwD February 27, 2013 at 7:14 pm #

    In response to jfruh’s comments about the Baltimore Circulator, its worse than you think! A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with someone who works for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. He is very much against residents in dense areas in Baltimore getting any better transit service than residents out at the ends of the lines because that would be unfair. I pointed out that the end of the line riders get huge subsidies while inner city rider come closer to break even. He blamed the whole problem on the inability to provide efficient metropolitan transit on poor land use decisions. I pointed out that inner city Baltimore (even in its depopulated current condition) has perfectly adequate density for efficient transit The problem is that disproportionate losses are incurred in lower density areas and therefor there is no money available to provide efficient transit. And on and on and on….
    He also said that there is no way to change the system in order to do better because dislocation of current riders caused by service changes always outweighs the benefits of the contemplated improvements. But don’t worry, there will never be any contemplated improvements!

  17. EngineerScotty March 8, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    The Washington State Senate is considering a bill that would essentially strip C-TRAN, the transit agency serving Clark County, WA (across the Columbia from Portland, OR), of the authority to do what you are discussing.
    The context of this bill is the proposed Columbia River Crossing project, which would massively widen Interstate 5 through North Portland and Vancouver, and replacing the aging Interstate Bridge with a new, bigger bridge. An extension of Portland’s MAX Yellow Line into Vancouver is included in the project. The project has managed to unite both the regions greens and right-wingers against it; the lefties disliking any expansion of the freeway, and the conservatives objecting to the MAX extension–and good government types of all ideologies object to some of the procedural shenanigans being employed by elected officials in both Salem and Olympia to ram the project through.
    Many in Vancouver, WA (and greater Clark County), want no part of MAX. (Many of these voters would LOVE a new, wider freeway into Portland, preferably one that didn’t come with a tollbooth). One obstacle is that C-TRAN needs to come up with funding to operate MAX within its borders, and this requires a vote of district residents. Such a vote was held district-wide last November, and failed. The agency is considering instead creating a “high capacity transit district” within the city of Vancouver (which is more supportive of MAX than many of the outlying ‘burbs, many of which are occupied by those want no part of urban living), and allowing residents within this district to vote to tax themselves to support MAX operations.
    However, a conservative Washington state senator, opposed to the project, is attempting to strip C-TRAN of this capability–with the stated intention of blocking MAX extension into Clark County.