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More of the case against eliminating fares

Keep Houston Houston gives a wide-ranging argument against Metro eliminating fares as some folks have advocated. His last reason resonates with me:

People don’t value what they don’t pay for
It’s a pretty simple concept, really. Removing fares shifts the public perception of transit away from “something people pay for, which we also subsidize” to “a free public good.” In a sprawling, widely-annexed city like Houston, where most voters have little to no *actual* contact with the transit system (as evidenced by these sorts of crappy proposals), it seems inevitable that fareless transit would ultimately lead to reduced service quality, by eroding peoples’ respect for transit riders’ rights. If you think of transit as welfare, you’ll probably have less of an issue making it as onerous as possible to use – if you want the proof for this statement, just look at what we’ve done with the welfare system over the last 15 years.

I for one have no trouble imagining much of the current crop of self-styled bus advocates, many of whom just use the issue as a proxy for rail-bashing (as KHH noted earlier in the piece), becoming utterly contemptuous of “transit welfare” recipients once riding became free. He’s exactly right about the attitude, as anyone who has witnessed the fights over six month versus twelve month renewals for CHIP and Medicaid can attest. I’m certainly open to the suggestion that Metro’s fare structure could be made more progressive, but even if we weren’t in the throes of a serious revenue shortage that would make the idea of Houston subsidizing a larger share of Metro’s expenses laughable, I’d have my doubts about abolishing the fare. And for all the criticism Metro has taken about service levels, they’ve actually done pretty well on that score of late, especially when compared to other transit agencies. So yeah, what KHH said.

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4 Comments

  1. Eliminating the nominal $1.25 local fare is not a good idea. Houston has the lowest fare of any big city in the US. And Kuff is right, transit systems across the country are raising fares as well as slashing service.

    I was surprised when Annise Parker toyed with this idea earlier. This would be an unfunded mandate. There aren’t many things you can buy with $1.25 these days. If the free-fare advocates call for eliminating Metro’s fares, then it is their responsibility to come up with a way of replacing this revenue source.

    By the way, Dallas’ base fare is $1.75.

  2. What would happen if Metro actually charged more, in order to cover more costs, and then the public sector (city, county, and maybe charitable organizations like United Way) addressed the issue of how to subsidize riders who need help? Those of us who can afford a reasonable fare are getting a ridiculous deal in order to make it easier for some need riders to get on. After all, grocery stores charge whatever the traffic will bear and the state and others help those in need to afford those prices.

  3. Matthew Venhaus says:

    Yes transit is a subsidized social service; you can make the same point about roads especially if you include the massive, currently unaccounted environmental and social justice impacts of single-occupancy cars. I’m not in Houston, but I doubt that “high” fares is a reason many people would cite for not using transit.

    Especially in a car-dependent city like Houston, mass transit exists first and foremost for those who are dependent upon it: those who are too young, too old, too poor, or unable to drive. Veterans in wheelchairs still need to get to their doctor’s appointment; poor people need a way to get to the job that conservatives keep telling them to get. Those people are not as price sensitive as commuters who have other options. So greater price subsidies only serve to help the worst customers mass transit could have: those who want massive amounts of money spent on new infrastructure and who tend to be the most capricious. In the process, the price subsidies reduce operating revenue and eventually erode the service for the people who depend upon it.

    I’ve lived through a mass transit meltdown in El Paso; I think Houston will be heading in that direction if they adopt this proposal.

  4. RE: Crossley, that’s an interesting concept. METRO already offers reduced fare programs; as a full-time student, for instance, I pay only 60 cents a trip. I don’t know if this is partly offset by the University, but if it’s not, it SHOULD be.