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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 43.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Just say no to Madison Metro bus-fare increase
This is the wrong time to make public transit more expensive

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has demanded that bus fares be raised to $2 a ride. The Transit and Parking Commission, whose duty it is to set fares, has twice said no.

Initially, the TPC voted 7-2 to keep fares the same as now ($1.50). Subsequently, in a compromise move, it voted 5-4 to raise fares to $1.75. The mayor, having not gotten his way, wants the city council to override the TPC.

The matter is slated to be taken up at the council's next meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 24. Please contact your alders and tell them to keep fares at the current rate.

There are no compelling reasons to raise fares now, and many good reasons not to. Some middle-class people, with their comfortable incomes and lifestyle, may not have noticed, but we are in a deep recession, considered the most serious since the Depression. This is not the time to raise fares 33%.

We live in the age of Peak Oil. Most people expect that gas prices, despite the recent downturn, will continue to climb in the long term. This will make long commutes expensive and lower the value of suburban development.

So why is the mayor pushing for so many highway expansions on the periphery of town (see Michael Barrett's opinion column, "Enough with the Roads Already!" 11/06/08), while his commitment to downtown infill has slowed dramatically? The city's comprehensive plan challenges single-occupant driving as the most desirable means of transportation. Yet the city is raising transit fares and building suburban highways as if it were the 1950s, and planning everything around cars.

If fares are raised, Madison will have the highest fares among its peer systems, including those of much larger cities like Indianapolis. "Choice riders," those with an alternative to the bus, will abandon Madison Metro, leaving fewer riders to pay fares, starting the spiral of more fare increases and service cuts.

The American Public Transit Association studied the effects of fare increases on ridership across many cities. It found that for every 10% hike in fares, ridership drops by 4.3%.

If this holds true for Madison, the mayor's proposed fare hike would reduce ridership by 14%. Ald. Brian Solomon, a TPC member, calculated that this would translate into a loss of close to half a million dollars. This deficit would be almost as great as the extra revenue the fare hike is supposed to raise.

In fact, Solomon's calculation of the deficit from the fare hike might be conservative. The Victoria Transit Policy Institute, a well-respected transportation think tank, found that a 10% rise in fares can be expected to reduce ridership between 4% and 6%.

Metro staff rejected these studies and posited that Madison bus ridership would only drop slightly if fares were raised. The basis for this conclusion was that Metro's ridership increased after the last fare hike, in August 2005. What staff didn't take into account, though, is that cash fares were not raised, and 10-ride cards increased only a dime.

More important, they ignored the fact that during the period studied, gas prices almost doubled. This boosts bus ridership, as do unlimited-ride-pass programs for employers and students, which greatly expanded during this same period.

Should the city council trust that Metro staff is right and that all the econometric models from around the world are wrong? This is the same staff that chose not to lock in a diesel price in late 2007, despite the TPC's urging; in late 2008, Metro did lock in and is now paying almost 75 cents a gallon more than the current market price.

What if Metro's model is wrong, and revenue gains are offset by ridership losses? Then we're back to where we are now, but with a 33% higher fare. (The mayor claims the hikes are needed to avoid service cuts. Yet two-thirds of the $600,000 in projected new revenue is earmarked for other purposes.)

Transit should be a tax-funded public service, just like police, fire, library, garbage and recycling. Many of these services, notably police and snowplowing, routinely overrun their budgets, and the council routinely appropriates the shortfall. Why is Metro treated differently?

If fares are raised again, it will be the third fare hike in this mayor's less than six years in office (the last two hikes raised all but the cash fare).

Madison has gone to great lengths to adopt the "Natural Step," a sustainability initiative. Raising fares is an unnatural step, especially as Dane County is now a non-attainment zone for air pollution.

The mayor feigns concern for low-income riders by endorsing a token program of subsidizing fares for a few qualifying riders, paid for in part by other riders. The mayor would do far more good for most low-income riders and others by finding the money to bridge the small shortfall in Metro's budget.

And shouldn't we wait to see whether the federal stimulus law might provide some operating funds?

Tim Wong is a longtime transportation analyst who served on the TPC for five years before being removed by the mayor.

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