Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Free Subways and Buses: Could it Work in DC?

Many thanks to AM New York for breaching this topic recently.

Imagine living in a region where almost all public transportation was free. The advancement opportunities in the areas of environment, work/live possibilities, personal scheduling freedom, and urban planning would be staggering. In a report that was recently delivered to the mayor of New York City, the non-profit organization Nurture New York’s Nature outlines a plan that does just that; make transit available for no charge. The plan uses a mix of congestion fees, taxi surcharges and parking fees to make subway and bus fares available at no cost. According to the calculations of the writers, the congestion and other new revenue would more than make up for the elimination of public transit fares.

The plan, detailed in the Free Transit Report essentially trades the revenue reaped through fares for revenue produced by cordon or congestion fees, higher taxi fares through surcharge and higher parking rates in the cordoned off area. The report suggests a $16 flat fee for entering Manhattan island anywhere below 60th Street, the CBD, or Central Business District. That's one block above the southern boundary of Central Park; near Columbus Circle. The $16 dollar rate would be for all cars. Commercial vehicles would be liable for more, $32 per visit.

Once inside the cordon zone (as in cordoned off) a paid vehicle could roam freely and leave without further charge. However, curbside parking rates would also be substantially higher under the plan. Curbside parking in the CBD would jump to $8.00 per hour, with rates outside of the CBD, from 60th St to 96th St, increasing at a lower rate (to ward off those who'd just park at 61st St and then hop on a bus). Taxi fares would increase substantially. The rates would be increased up by 25% and that increase would be taxed, creating the new revenue stream. Taxis would not pay the $16 cordon fee. The pay-offs of the proposed system are similar to that of the HOT Lane plans we've discussed for the DC region. Payers of the fee would realize reduced traffic and travel times, and the fees would provide a boon to local governments and transit agencies. Its a fascinating report and you can read the details here (its a pretty large PDF).

The question: Could it work here? The NY plan applies to New York City only. Transit for other, regional systems would still require a fare (PATH, NJ Transit, Metro North, LIRR, etc). We'd almost have to REQUIRE regional cooperation of the states of Maryland and Virginia include the governments of the local counties. Since WMATA is a regional transit organization, not a city-owned entity, fare elimination would likely have to happen across the board. All rail lines and all but some express bus routes would need to be free, for equities sake. We have a decent record of regional cooperation, but the bean counting and having to decide who pays what to enter from where would present a substantial challenge. Imagine determining the new fare structure for congestion pricing! Talk about politics.

Congress has also been cold to any ideas even closely related to commuter fees or taxes and the residents of the surrounding counties would not be likely to support any such ideas. What would we do? Charge $5-10 per bridge crossing from Virginia? What about Maryland? Perhaps we'd only charge to enter the downtown area and Georgetown. The congestion zone would stretch from the Capitol Building west 40 blocks to the Key Bridge. And north to K Street. Resources for the Future played with some numbers and possibilities last year with interesting results.

Enforcement would be a mess. Toll plazas on Florida Avenue? EZ Pass on he 14th Street Bridge? And I'm not sure our downtown is congested enough to warrant such drastic measures. Truth is that our subway system, for all its faults, does its job for the most part. Additionally, there's no guarantee that it could handle the extra stress of many more extra passengers. The Nurture New York report also fails to mention a key aspect, one we'd have to deal with year round: tourists. Tourists would undoubtedly balk at (or just be plain confused by) congestion fees. Most wouldn't stand for such a fee in order to see or national memorials and other government buildings, all owned by the people. The “Washington as America's City” argument would win out. There's really no price to be put on access to our most revered national locales.

In an ideal world, the Nurture New York plan could work; it may even actually work in New York City. Not so sure it would pass the test in DC though. Its too complicated to be applied fairly and we'd always have the omnipotent hand of Congress to say "no way" to any idea which comes close to a commuter tax. And some of the overarching philosophical ideals related to a free, open and accessible government wold prevent any such restrictions on getting into the city. But the idea of free mass transit is enticing and the repercussions of such a system deserve at least some initial thought. New York is known for making waves in cultural and economic realms and if they can pull of something even CLOSE to what the Free Transit Report calls for, consider that day a good day.