Daimajin posed the question about how Metro should compensate for higher fuel costs. Systematically, this is how I see it:

Raising taxes

  • No negative impacts on ridership


  • Introduces tax fatigue, poisoning the well for capital projects like light rail.
  • Is likely to be regressive

Raising fares

  • The usual suspects (Kemper Freeman, et al) don’t object.
  • $2.00 is easier to pay than $1.75.
  • Corporate pass purchasers (eg, Microsoft) are relatively price-insensitive


  • Highly regressive to poor, occasional transit users.

Capital Investment for less diesel dependence

  • Sustainable, both environmentally and economically


  • Makes the funding squeeze worse in the short term
  • Takes a long time
Although cheaper passes and higher spot fares would benefit me personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea. First of all, as noted above many pass purchasers are corporate and therefore price-insensitive. Secondly, a lot of cash payers are poor, either because they use transit irregularly, or they can’t scrape together the money to buy a pass up front.

I would hate to see a 0.1% tax increase go to maintaining current service hours instead of getting light rail out to Microsoft, etc.

So what do I propose? How about going to $2.00/$2.50 across the board (aligning with ST express two-zone), and a tax increase for capital improvements like trolley bus lines, streetcars, and light rail?

22 Replies to “Re: Rising Gas Prices and Transit Agencies”

  1. //How about going to $2.00/$2.50 across the board //

    Then parking would be less expensive than my wife and I riding the bus (for all of 2 miles). As I said in the last post, rising prices will solve the problem in that less people will ride the bus. But I’m not sure that’s the problem we want to solve.

    Here’s an idea. Reduce service and replace it by taxing for a completely new system. LRT or traffic-seperated streetcars could replace quite a few bus lines, and will have their own new tax-based budget.

  2. Matt,

    I think pricing to target ultra-short distance commuters like you is a mistake. Since your gas costs to get downtown are essentially zero, it’s going to be really hard to develop a fare structure that is both simple and yet economical for you, while covering the steep fuel costs for longer trips.

    Unless, of course, you’re up to bike, walk, or buy a pass, in which case the marginal cost of your trip is zero. Or, you could get rid of a car and save on the ownership costs.

    I don’t see how a “completely new system” — with all the associated growing pains and startup costs — has any advantages over the existing train, bus, and streetcar architectures.

  3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought I read somewhere that the costs related to time lost, fuel wasted at stops while waiting for people to pay, and overall small benefit of fares collected from non-pass users is nearly equivalent to the fare paid.

    Time to go european, maybe sell a one week pass for $10 (or other denominations and time periods with zones on it) at gas stations, 7-11’s, or other convenient locations, and then have an electronic validator (hole puncher with timestamp) on busses. When you get on the first time, valdiate it and ride appropriately for a week. When your pass has expired (7 days from validation) buy a new pass, or continue to ride and hope transit police don’t make suprise inspections that would slam you with a $120 ticket.

    No more of this pay as you leave/enter stuff and have front door for loading, back door for exiting. For those that would argue that the average seattle joe couldnt pick this up, its apparent that many average joes are clueless when it comes to riding the bus with the current fare system.

  4. [martin] Sorry, I thought this was Seattle transit blog. Commuting from anywhere within Seattle has low fuel costs.

    Your idea of charging those with low fuel costs extra fares to subsidize the mostly empty exurb fuel-hog routes just doesn’t seem like a great idea to me. If the reason for the fare hike is gas prices, maybe we should raise fares for those that live outside the city?

  5. They could save alot of fuel if they didn’t run the large buses on low demand routes, or just switch to the smaller sizes off peak.

    Except for a few routes I bet the 17-25? passenger vans could handle most routes.

  6. Matt, following up your posts in a previous thread:

    How would a Seattle bus system help you, exactly? The 2, 2X, and 13 routes are local — basically, how a Seattle bus system would be run either way.

    I live on Capitol Hill and work near the Olympic Sculpture Park. That sounds about the same commute distance you have to deal with, except you have three routes going to your destination while I only have one. My commute takes 25 minutes from me leaving the door of my apartment until I’m sitting at my desk. Driving would probably be more like ten minutes, but I think it’s worth it.

    First, I get a company-provided bus pass so everything is free. Second, I don’t have to pay for any gas (how slight it may be) and have to maintain my vehicle less. Third, I think driving introduces a little more stress into my life. Finally, as a poster on this blog and someone who considers transit very important I feel like I am more than talking the talk, but I am walking the walk.

    Now, I would never say this to just someone reading this blog or someone I met on the street, but given that you post on a transit blog in what amounts to some position of authority on the subject, I feel like your objections to the bus are flimsy excuses.

    Listen, a subway or a streetcar operating during peak hours will be packed with a lot of weirdos, too. The delay between trains and walking to a stop will always be slower than walking to your car.

    You would rather carpool with your wife, and that’s your choice. However, you are one of the select few million Americans that has excellent bus options. Do not blame the bus system or the two dollar difference in fares/parking here. You have access to frequent service on three major routes, it is cheaper*, and I wouldn’t expect to hear these arguments from a transit blogger — much less one who lives on/near dense Queen Anne and is in for a 15 minute bus ride.

    * $2 a day is $500 a year for a five day work-week for 50 weeks per year. Cars need gas and maintenance, of course. And, from what I’ve seen anecdotally, if someone drives to work they’re much more likely to default to driving from everything else — which means more fuel and more money.

  7. [riz] Perhaps you have misunderstood my point. If we’re already at the price point for someone with an average in-city commute such as myself, increasing the price will lose quite a few transit users. Hoping that people will ride the bus out of some sense of duty is a bit absurd.

    Of course, the long term solution isn’t rate hikes – it’s building an efficient transportation system.

    I’ll ignore the personal judgements, as I’m comfortable with my choices and it’s waaay off topic.

  8. justin, a large part of transit ridership comes from people who nearly always use their service at time x, but wouldn’t if time x+1 wasn’t available to them.

    That’s part of why Sounder ridership increases faster, proportionally, than service is added. When there’s another train after yours, you feel safer taking the train you’re on, because you have a backup option.

  9. Across the country, mass transit needs to move to non-oil fuels – possibly hydrogen fuel cells in the long term, maybe biofuels now. Getting more buses to run on CNG wouldn’t be a bad idea either. I’d like to see major transit centers outfitted with electric outlets for plug-in hybrids.

    Seattle will probably see ST2 go to the ballot and pass in November, but what about the rest of the country? The pro-transit movement needs to seize this moment and agitate for major capital improvements in underinvested cities across the country, including comprehensive rail systems, and for Congress to support mass transit investment.

  10. Matt,

    No comprehensive in-city transit network is going to be more convenient than driving until several things happen:

    – Parking becomes hard and expensive, everywhere.
    – Congestion on all arterials shoots up.
    – People reduce car ownership because of transit options.

    To some extent, these things will happen with densification and superior options like light rail.

    25-cent swings in affordability simply aren’t relevant compared to the larger issues of convenience and expenditure.

    Longer commutes to work, however, do pencil out because of the existence of HOV lanes and high cost of gasoline, even though suburbanites have no chance of avoiding the high cost of car ownership.

    Are you really suggesting that an additional charge of $1.00 a a day is what would drive you and your wife away from transit?

  11. Yeah, martin, this whole “It costs $9 to commute” scales a lot faster than transit costs.

  12. [martin] Would I have ridden the bus today if it was $1 cheaper? Maybe. I rode it earlier this week at the current price – it all depends on a number of factors.

    But let’s not forget about the reason for an extra $1 a day*: to pay for other people’s gas.

    //25-cent swings in affordability simply aren’t relevant compared to the larger issues of convenience and expenditure.// I definately agree, as long as we’re talking about increasing convenience. But you’re talking about raising prices without increasing services.

    *Wouldn’t that be an extra $3 a day? I commute at peak hours.

  13. Matt, I apologize that people, including me, are questioning your personal choices but you provided this information yourself in a previous thread in part to say that perhaps Seattle needs it’s own bus network.

    The point of my reply isn’t to challenge your green ethos. I am challenging your implication that the bus network is failing you. I was uncomfortable with you pointing to a fault in Metro KC’s bus system, when in your specific case it is simply a matter of choice.

    And, on top of that, you are a transit blogger so I held you to a much higher standard than Joe Bellevue. It’s not my place to judge, and sorry that I am.

  14. Btw, I am basically replying to your previous thread comments.

    I do not think that we should raise the fare for buses, especially right after fares were just raised and right as public transit use is soaring. Hopefully there are some better ways to make up costs.

  15. Matt,

    *Wouldn’t that be an extra $3 a day? I commute at peak hours.

    25 cent increase * 4 trips = $1.00.

    Transit fares, to some extent, have to be generalized. If the fuel consumption involved in transporting you is less than the mean for a Seattle resident, the only way to accurately reflect that is to have fares highly proportional to distance travel — perhaps with smart cards that you swipe boarding and off-boarding.

    That costs money, and is really complicated. Just yesterday we were whining about how complicated the fare structure is.

    As for 2-zone fares rising faster than 1-zone, there’s certainly a logic to that, although as the center gentrifies and the periphery gets poorer, that’ll become increasingly regressive.

  16. [riz] I agree that my county metro comment needs further discussion to come to my conclusions. I plan to post a full discussion regarding the merits of a seperate Seattle system, but I’ll be away for a few weeks and this will probably have to wait.

  17. [martin] I appologize – I thought your $2/$2.50 comment meant off/on peak. A $.25 increase isn’t a huge deal, though it still seems like a bad solution to the fuel problem.

  18. matt, remember that your (car) fuel costs are rising without offering you any increase in service.

  19. The magic word here is “surcharge”. It could be 50 cents per rider, or by zones, but it’s a traditional way to deal with price spikes.

    The one thing that’s coming through clearly is that a smart card solution must support pay-by-the-mile billing. Just like your phone card comes with 100 minutes, the transit smart card should come with a hundred miles. And you just know that the first smart card implementation here will screw this up.

  20. using the existing electric trolleybus overhead more intensisvely and adding key new segments would not necessarily take a long time and relatively modest capital. This would reduce dependence on diesel.

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