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Fare Free Mass Transit in WNY – Is It Possible?

March 7, 2012

The current economic difficulty facing the NFTA provides the WNY area with an unique opportunity to offer to its citizens a community wide benefit provided in few other locations in the world. It also may be a kick start to a change in attitude that our community sorely needs, where we can become a region that is looked on by others as a place where its citizens are progressive, economically smart and world class leaders.

In reviewing the NFTA’s operating budget it appears that its total operating cost is 250 million dollars. The revenue it generates from its passengers is about 60 million dollars, or 24%. The other 76% of the cost is paid for primarily from various governmental subsidies (41%), capital contributions (17%), other sources of income (14%), and what seem to be annual deficits (4%). Nationally, the average subsidy to US public transit expenses approximates 75%, so this seems to be the norm, and clamoring for the NFTA to do more with what it has seems like a no win proposition.

Let’s now imagine a system without fare boxes on its buses and light rail cars, where passengers freely board these mass transit vehicles to go to work, school, or shopping (nationally these three categories comprise 75% of all mass transit rides). Further imagine the same system safely transporting our aging population, encouraging increased urbanization, reducing traffic congestion, avoiding the need for roadway expansion costs, parking lots, and also providing increased health and environmental benefits.

In fact, many cities in this country are currently experiencing redevelopment and population growth where a mass transit system exists on a scale greater than what is currently available in WNY. In the 2004 American Community Survey, 60% of perspective homebuyers preferred a neighborhood that offered a shorter commute, sidewalks, and amenities like local shops, restaurants, libraries, schools, and public transport over a more automobile dependent community.

There’s been much written about the need for our suburban communities to recognize the importance of our city center, with the popular refrain, “as goes Buffalo, so goes the rest of WNY,” shouted repeatedly by our city advocates. A properly developed mass transit system would join each of our suburban communities with the city in a way that would benefit all of WNY. Good quality mass transit provides an integrated system that includes compact, high-quality stops and stations, surrounded by mixed-use development, good walking and cycling conditions, decent taxi services, and more of an acceptance of car-free living. If you add to that inexpensive or free access to and from each of our unique suburbs, it’s a combination that only a few other cities can match.

So who is going to pay for “free mass transit” in a community that we are repeatedly told gets poorer each day? Here’s just one idea. Forgetting for a moment the significant economic benefits that such a system would provide, consider that the combined population of Erie and Niagara counties is approximately 1.2 million. The average number of miles driven in the U.S. by each person is 12,000 or more as of 2006 statistics. If you assume 20 miles to the gallon, that means on the average each of us uses 600 gallons of gas per year, and perhaps more, given my conservative assumptions. If we add $.10 (one dime) to the price of a gallon of gas, that total of $72 million ($60 times 1.2 million people) would exceed by $12 million the revenue it currently generates from all passenger fares. That would begin to meet the expected increased demand that a no fare transit system would likely (and hopefully) generate. It is also statistically certain that any fare increase imposed by the NFTA will drive down ridership and reduce fare income, the exact opposite of what is desired.

Before some of your readers accuse me of being Lenin’s great grandchild, look at what might happen with the imposition of no fare mass transit. Initially it would increase disposable income of those who would almost certainly spend it on basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter and even education. It would reduce traffic congestion and lower gasoline/oil consumption. Who, besides big oil, can argue with that?

As suggested earlier in this letter, it would reduce traffic and parking congestion, traffic accidents, road repairs and new construction, pollution emissions and maybe even some personal injury lawyers. Additionally, it would likely increase employment of the poor and economically disadvantaged, allow those with disabilities to travel more and provide more frequent access to medical services, essential shopping and social and education services for those either without an automobile, or who can’t afford to drive one frequently given the price of gasoline.

So how does this help the upper middle class, the wealthy, the automobile lovers and our deeply suburban and country dwellers? Well there is always global warming if one has children or grandchildren to consider. Without traffic congestion you can get places quicker(and yes, it does occur in WNY) and with less stress. The proposed cost to you of no fare mass transit is minimal (about $60. per person per year). Some estimates put the government subsidy to private car owners at $3,700 per year, and the total cost to operate the average vehicle at $13,613 ( in year 2000 dollars).

It might, in some ways, be nice to say that this is a unique idea that we in WNY can call our own, but the fact that it is done elsewhere and works, is even more worthwhile and potentially exciting. In cities in Europe and the U.S. it is alive and well. Chapel Hill, NC, Commerce, CA, Hasselt, Belgium, Lubben, Germany are just a few. Search on the internet and you will be amazed and impressed by the cities that provide this service to its inhabitants.

So in a way this is a challenge to our citizens and government leaders to take a negative situation and turn it into something positive for all of us. This is what Buffalo and WNY should be all about. Looking at that half glass of water and seeing it half full. Making lemonade out of lemons. Keeping our children here instead of waving goodbye as they leave for better opportunities. Thinking of others, and realizing that in helping out that other person, you are really doing something magical for yourself.