Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why is Rail Different than Highways?

Taken from the transportation blog at the Dallas Morning News, which in turn was taken from the D Magazine blog (will someone take it from this blog?), David Linienger, DART's Chief Financial Officer, is quoted as saying DART may begin to charge people who do not live in the service area an extra charge to use their trains, most likely from a parking fee.

There are several reasons for this. 1) DART is having financial issues. Sales tax is the largest contributor to DART's coffers. When the economy crashes, sales tax follows. 2) Population growth has been slow in the service area, as Allen, Frisco and McKinney have been attracting the people Plano, Richardson and Carrollton used to get. Meanwhile, the system has been expanding. 3) The out-of-service-area residents are using the system, predominantly the end-of-line stations. 4) These residents aren't paying the sales tax where they live.

This is a sticky issue, and one that isn't in DART's full control. I don't like the way that most of American cities fund and build transit. Using DART as an example, the system is set up for cities to decide if they want to be in the system. What if had done that for highways? Suppose three cities in a linear row get to decide. City A and C want the highway but B doesn't. What happens? Well, that is what is going on with transit. Individual cities are deciding regional solutions. This puts DART in a position to ponder whether people who live in the same region, but different cities, pay a different rate.

Suppose the numbers work and it is in DART's best interest to charge non-residents. Surely some of those people who used to ride would now drive. Has anything been accomplished from a regional perspective? A lot of planning is about reducing vehicle use and their negative externalities. In doing what benefits themselves, the folks at DART would be doing the opposite. That's the big issue with a city-by-city approach to transit.

As for the proposal, I have a mixed view. I like that they are trying to recover some costs by folks that aren't paying into the system with their sales tax, but are using the system (though they are paying something, through the farebox). Some say that commuters who use the system to come into the DART service area pay a sales tax at some point, but they would regardless of if they used the system. If thy take the train and go out for lunch, would they not do the same thing if they drove? But the largest portion of income spent that is subject to the sales tax is still spent at home leaving DART out.

Also, if they do implement it through a parking charge, I can support that because parking is not free. In our modern Americam society, it is subsidized to the point of free for the user. But someone still owns the land. If parking more accurately reflected the market, then these would be non-issues. There's also a chance folks would catch a bus to the station. In the end, that reduces car trips too. I just don't know how common that would be.

What I would like to see is a fare based on the distance, similar to Washington D.C.'s system. In essence, this would accomplish the same thing, although folks who lived in Plano and work downtown would pay the same as those who lived outside the service area. There is something similar in place on the TRE. They operate on the honor system just as DART rail does, so it is doable. I just wonder if the political will is there.

As a downtown resident, my most common destination from ST. Paul Station is Cityplace and Mockingbird Station. I pay the same fare for a ride that is two-four stations away as these end-of-line users who pass 13 stations to get to their home station. DART's cost are less to transport me than it is to transport them. So in essence, my fare is subsidizing theirs.

But I don't like the idea from a regional perspective. There's no doubt that this proposal will reduce transit trips and increase car trips. How much remains to be seen. It also will reduce ridership, which is against their primary purpose.

At this stage, I am tentatively for the proposal, with the ability to rescind my support should it not meet the cost-benefit requirements. In America, there is no other case study to judge its merits. Aside from the distance-based fare, this may be the best idea to get revenues in line with costs.

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