Just say no to feeding
the transit leviathan

Sounding Board Editorial #10 (April 6, 2008)

Dennis Foster

     The Daily Sun editorial on this topic was quite favorable, in no small part because it seems like the price is right!  Well, so it goes.  Every couple of years we are asked to raise our taxes by some miniscule amount to pay for some new project and it is awfully hard to get people worked up about it.  So, I thought I would continue using Barack Obama-isms in this editorial, but I can't say that my appeal to the "audacity of hope" really resonated with readers.  This comment ran on April 6.

With five Mountain Line ballot propositions up for a vote I am suffering from an “audacity of hope.”  Might Flagstaff voters take this opportunity to rearrange the transit landscape?  I hope so.

Face it, the Mountain Line is a failure.  Here’s a statistic you probably haven’t heard – one.  As best I can tell, that’s the number of passengers carried on the bus per mile traveled.  And, this number was forecast to fall to .66 by 2009!  Doesn’t that make driving my SUV the “earth-friendly” option?

Also, even though the Feds paid for buses, and the Mountain Line only needs to pay to operate the system, passenger fares only account for 15% of what they spend.  The tax subsidy per regular rider appears to be between $1000 and $1500 per year!

If voters rejected all five propositions would it cause hardships?  Well, not necessarily.  We have bus stops all over town.  Why not open up this market to all who wish to compete?  Anyone with a bus (and a license) can ply the existing routes and pick up passengers and charge any fare they want.  I would anticipate that service frequency, service coverage and passenger levels would increase, while bus sizes and transit times would fall.

If you don’t like competition, then why not just give regular riders a car?  Maybe one of those new NANOs they make in India (www.tatamotors.com) that sell for $2500.  We’d still save money!  Don’t Phoenix Flagstaff and just say no to feeding the transit leviathan.

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics, teaches at the university level, is an avid Grand Canyon hiker and relied on data in the Flagstaff Five-Year Transit Plan for this commentary.

     While some transit propositions failed in the last election, one notion kicked around was that there wasn't any political group championing its cause.  Well, that was not the case this time around, with a group formed to raise money to post up signs around town extolling voters to approve these propositions.  The theme of these signs is to "let the mountain line thrive," so I decided to call my blog on this, "let the mountain line die."  

     One problem that is well illustrated by this issue is that most people think that the market would never provide mass transit service.  That is only true because of restrictions and regulations.  And, at a subsidy of more than the cost of taking a taxi, on a per person, per mile traveled basis, certainly no market participants would come up with the same kind of system that the government has.

     This commentary got a lot of feedback - plenty of web comments, and follow-up letters to the editor.  Mostly, they just reinforce the entitlement notion - taxpayers should pay for them to use this costly mode of transport.  The bus system director also wrote a commentary, and while he noted that sometimes buses are full, didn't provide any updated values to the number of passengers carried per bus mile traveled.

     All five propositions passed by a wide margin.  So it goes.

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