SF transit fares rise to $2: roadways remain free

Paying More For This?Following the lead of transit agencies around the country the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA), the agency that operates Muni, will raise fares by fifty cents and cut some services beginning July 1st. The new fare will be $2 and there will also be an increase in the price of a Fast Pass, the transit agency’s monthly pass. Like other transit agencies around the country the SFMTA is faced with falling government subsidies in the wake of the economic crisis and needs to increase fares to cover operating costs.

The problem is not that $2 is too high for transit. The problem is that driving a personal vehicle is too cheap. Despite what many people think, using public roads and freeways is not a right – it’s a luxury. The government doesn’t provide limitless free TV, it doesn’t guarantee that anyone can have a good job, a college degree, or for that matter free health care. Why should limitless roads and freeways be viewed as a right when these other services are not?

It’s true that the private sector would not build a system of roads and freeways the way the government has and there are some fees for using roadways (such as the gas tax and vehicle registration fees). However, it’s a mistake to assume that simply because a service is public, that it should remain essentially free- It’s OK for the government to make money, or at least receive some revenue for a service, especially if it can send a price signal for people to use a good or service in an efficient quantity.

Cheap Phone Cards

The problem with the SFMTA announcement is that it sends the wrong price signal. Raising fares to cover transit operating costs is something that needs to be done, and that’s OK. However, fare hikes need to be complemented by increased transit assistance for the needy, markedly improved transit services, and above all by roadway toll fees – toll fees that are something close to the true cost of using the private automobile on a roadway. If such a toll were charged people would make efficient decisions about which mode of transportation to use and transit would be relatively more attractive. But, raising fares on transit without simultaneously raising fees for the automobile only makes the car ever more attractive. This is the wrong direction for San Francisco and America.

There is hope on the horizon: keep your eye out for the vehicle-miles tax (VMT). It’s what transit needs to be competitive.

IMAGE CREDIT: Source Flickr, by Steve Rhode.

© Brian A. Tyler and SwitchingModes.com, 2009.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this website’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian Tyler and SwitchingModes.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

6 Responses to “SF transit fares rise to $2: roadways remain free”

  1. 1 Jarrett at HumanTransit May 3, 2009 at 4:14 pm


    Actually a vehicle registration fee isn’t really a road pricing mechanism, since you pay the same amount no matter how little or much you drive. You’ll want to follow Oregon’s new experiment on replacing the gas tax with an odometer-based mileage tax charged when you renew your registration.

  2. 2 Matt May 5, 2009 at 4:42 am

    Why is a mileage tax seen as a solution? Don’t we have an acceptable mechanism levied through gas taxes, which address both mileage and efficiency?

    • 3 switchingmodes May 5, 2009 at 9:58 am

      No, we don’t. The average gas tax in this country (state and federal) was 47 cents a gallon. If the average car gets just 20 MPG that less than 2.5 cents per mile. That amount doesn’t even begin to put a market price on the carbon released into the air, the maintenance costs our roadways,the societal cost of blight and noise, or the societal costs of roadway accidents from the private automobile.

      If you lived in a country where a good was produced that benefited all of society, and could even make money, you would have a good product. Now imagine if someone came and dumped a wasteful luxurious product all over your country and built glamorous retail outlets for it and came up with great advertising schemes etc – AND dumped that product at far bellow the real cost of the product. Your product couldn’t survive right? It wouldn’t be fare – even if your product was really good for society and the other product imposed wasteful harms. That wouldn’t be right would it? That’s our country today.

      Now you might say that well buses use roadways too. Yes. But a bus with 50 people on would require 40 cars (people drive on average with 1.25 people per vehicle). The space to accommodate those extra cars would require more lanes and more maintenance and more societal harms. BUSES SAVE MONEY in this respect. We should encourage their use.

      The gas tax doesn’t work because people are overusing a commodity that is delivered bellow market price and bellow costs. That’s not an acceptable mechanism of funding transportation.

      • 4 Matt May 5, 2009 at 7:33 pm

        Thanks for the response. The analogy of import dumping is an interesting one. While I agree with the sentiment, I don’t believe that the fact that gas taxes are currently too low is a reason to through them out. If the price is too low, raise it! I know this is easier said than done, but perhaps easier than establishing a new system of vehicle taxation.

      • 5 switchingmodes May 6, 2009 at 7:43 am

        A VMT tax, taken all the way, won’t just solve the funding issue, it will solve the systemic congestion issue on our nations roads and freeways. It only takes a few cars off the road to stop congestion, sometimes just 2%. The current problem is that adding a lane to a freeway only encourages more people to use that expanded facility. A VMT would adjust the price it charges so that our freeways can move MORE people. This might seem counter intuitive – but it works. Once congestion sets in the capacity of road can drop by 50%; it becomes something like a clogged artery. Experience around the world shows that because it only takes a slight drop in the number of cars using a roadway to free congestion that the price does not have to be high. Yet it would often be around the price of using transit, which would send a clear price signal.

        A VMT tax would also address the emissions issue. That’s because when a vehicle is registered the emissions test, weight and size of the vehicle would be taken into account. The theory behind this is that lower emissions should be rewarded, lower weight reduces wear and tear on the roads and the safety hazard to other drivers, and the size of the vehicle relates to how much space on the roadway a car uses – a limo, for example, should be charged a higher rate in congested areas.

        Raising the gas tax is politically difficult – in fact, it is so politically difficult that it doesn’t ever happen. People who don’t have cars don’t see the tax as affecting them, so they don’t care. People who have cars are adamantly against it, so they do car. Additionally there are very strong lobbying groups to go up against. Instead of raising gas taxes we have relied on sales taxes, which are politically feasible – people vote for sales taxes on transportation issues.

        Finally, the gas tax is flawed for one final reason (or really 2 reasons): who can afford a Prius? They’re not cheap. Even a new luxury hybrid SUV can get the mileage of a 10 year old junker. The gas tax is thus unfairly put on those people who can afford lower mileage cars. If $5 gas tax was put in place today, tomorrow there would be lines out the door at Toyota and Tesla dealerships. So, a $5 gas tax would only clear our roadways for the rich, who wouldn’t even really be paying the tax at all.

        In the above scenario this is one other problem too: there is considerable amount of pollution and waste in private vehicle, especially an electric one because of the batteries. An electric light-rail vehicle can last 100 years (just look at Market Street in San Francisco), but a normal lifespan is over 25 years (buses are good too, but not as good). Even then, a transit vehicle is used everyday all day and by many people – we need far fewer transit vehicles per capita than cars. Even just shipping all these cars takes a toll on our environment. And, building roadways creates massive amounts of pollution. Not just from the machines that build them, but the cement secretes huge quantities of greenhouse gases while it sets. Transit uses needs only a small fraction of the roadway as that of vehicle… less cement, less construction costs.

        There more issues too, but I’m running out of time, so I’ll make it brief: 1.) the cost of motor vehicle accidents on society, not just in terms of health care, but also pedestrians who are disproportionately injured, and the lawsuits that tie up our courts and feed lawyers pockets 2.) the cost of blight from traffic and freeways 3.) the cost of noise 4.) the cost of traffic delays on productivity 5.) the social inequality measure for those who cannot afford a car 6.) lost productivity spent while driving while work can be done on a transit vehicle 7.) the cost of defending oil trade routes 8.) the health concerns of pollution 9.) the infrastructure costs incurred from urban sprawl (water, sewer, etc.) 10.) the environmental degradation from urban sprawl 11.) GM corporate get :) … you get the point.

  3. 6 switchingmodes May 6, 2009 at 7:51 am

    I meant jets… GM corporate jets…

    And… I also forgot to mention parking… but there’s a lot to say there… cost, blight, etc.

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© Brian A. Tyler and SwitchingModes.com, 2009.
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