Friday, May 13, 2011

Funding transit: Stu's plan

Prefatory note: This post attempts to serve three purposes. First, PA Governor Tom Corbett has formed a Transportation Funding Advisory Committee whose purpose is to recommend ideas for both transit and highway/bridge funding. Second, a formal committee of Allegheny County (PA) government is soliciting suggestions on fixing the transit funding dilemma at a local level. Third, a group of transit planners and activists in various cities, using Twitter to contact one another, is pooling ideas for transit funding. This is my entry for all three.

In placing before you my ideas and suggestions for transit funding, I need to make clear the beliefs that guide my thinking. Following that, I will point out the likelihood of our having to live with this transit funding plan for an extended time. Next I will describe my tax plan, along with suggestions on how to sell it to elected officials and also the general public. Let us begin.

Belief #1: I believe transit keeps money in the state while automobile use causes it to leave. This should be fairly obvious, as most gasoline used in PA does not originate from PA petroleum, as it once did. Transit dollars are primarily spent locally, through salaries, wages, benefits, parts, supplies, advertising, etc. While buses obviously do also use petroleum, the "passenger-miles-per-gallon" figure for transit buses is still much higher than single-occupant commuter automobiles. Thus, encouraging transit and discouraging car use benefits the state economy directly.

Belief #2: I believe the Energy Information Administration (of our own national government) and the International Energy Association (consortium of 28 nations), each of which concluded that the world has passed the point of "peak oil": that no matter now much may yet be down there, and no matter how many wells we drill or where we drill them, all of humanity cannot extract it any faster than we were able to in November 2006.

Belief #3: I believe $4 gasoline will soon be viewed as cheap. Since many Third World countries like China and India are increasing their populations of automobiles at an amazing pace, we Americans are now competing for that same now-stagnant (and soon to decline) stream of petroleum. Gasoline may seem expensive at $4/gallon, but an inevitable, inexorable price rise is only getting started.

Belief #4: I believe road expansion should cease entirely. If we cannot afford to maintain the road system we have now, we should not be building more.

Belief #5: Regarding the constant political battles over transit, I believe the turmoil deters people from wanting to try using it. I believe the battles must cease entirely if we want transit to succeed.

The problem before us now is to implement a funding formula to sustain public transit systems -- Port Authority of Allegheny County here in metro Pittsburgh -- in a mere 12 months. This might be considered short term in the overall scheme of things, but what we implement will likely be with us for many years, even decades. It's been nearly 50 years since public transit as we know it got a makeover, almost 70 since the last major tax policy change was implemented. In 1945, the Pennsylvania Constitution was amended, in what is now Article VIII Sec. 11(a), restricting motor fuels taxes to paying for highway and bridge maintenance. While this seemed to make sense at the time, it helped kill the privately operated, tax paying, public transit systems of the time, causing them all to go bankrupt over the next 20 years. The resulting government takeover created the single, county owned and operated, transit systems we have today. Whatever we come up with, we need to realize that for the next 10 or 25 or more years, we will have to live with the system we are now putting in place, and it will be in a world that does not use much gasoline, compared to now.

Consider those three thoughts together: declining world petroleum supply, increased world demand for petroleum, and a tax system now based on petroleum usage. The world as we have known it for four generations will be replaced in the next generation. The game is changing, and any proposed solution that does not accept that will not work.

To that end, my primary solution is only partial, not intended to be a complete answer to all our funding problems. Do this, but do other things too that might work. There are four components to this, each of which will require legislation in Harrisburg, if only to enable the counties involved to do it for themselves:

(a) I recommend a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax, in addition to the various forms of fuel taxes. Using numbers obtained from PennDOT (!/PennDOTNews/status/64051033332125696), assessing $1 per 1,000 miles traveled would bring in $88 million annually. Since PennDOT already tracks odometer readings and collects money through both the vehicle registration and inspection programs, assessing this should be fairly easy.
(b) Once collected, the funds would be allocated to the counties in proportion to where the vehicles are registered. The public transit agency or agencies in these counties would directly benefit.
(c) Set up transit districts where many counties and agencies share a common transportation need -- such as the counties surrounding metro Pittsburgh -- and apportion the funds within that district based on the number of weekday revenue hours provided by each agency.
(d) I leave it to the politicians to decide on a multiplier other than $1 per 1,000 miles traveled. I recommend $5.

The next problem is selling this idea to legislators, apart from the public as a whole. The reality of the political climate is that Republicans do not want any new taxes. This must be sold to them on the basis of its being an update to an existing tax. Here's why: A growing number of cars are either hybrid or all electric, and as fuel prices rise, this is liable to become more pronounced. Whether a car's motive force is powered by petroleum, electricity, solar panels, hydrogen, or a wood-fired steam boiler, it's still a car, and contributes to traffic congestion, and wear and tear on the roads. More importantly, much of the time, its use competes with public transit. The more that drivers can use transit instead of a car, the better able transit would be to pay for itself. The commuter who uses the car for the "last mile" -- from transit stop to home -- will pay a much smaller VMT than one who commutes the whole way by car.

Fuel taxes will still be needed, as this is how roads and bridges will be maintained. This was the specific intent of the 1945 amendment. If the existing fuel taxes do not provide enough revenue to keep our roads and bridges in good repair, then raise the tax. If this cannot or will not be done, then close some roads and bridges. The simplest, most effective change would be to change the fuel tax from a per-gallon to a per-dollar basis.

The VMT, not being a motor fuels tax, would be constitutional for funding transit, and would provide the most revenue where also exists the most need for transit. It is also self-correcting. Say, for example, 10,000 additional cars were registered in Elk County next year, each driving 10,000 miles annually, then Elk County would have $100K more a year to implement or expand a transit system to alleviate the congestion all those cars would cause, and in so doing, avert or delay spending lots more money to widen roads and bridges to handle such traffic.

The final problem is to sell this to the public. For that, I propose developing an online game -- perhaps a couple -- to help people visualize these ideas along with competing and often ill-conceived, functionless, or even counterproductive suggestions. My inspiration for this is a New York Times online app accompanying a story on how to close the federal budget deficit, both near term (2015) and long term (2030) ( The first of two games would be similar to that.

I also suggest another, more complex game, that would appeal to the higher thinkers in our midst. I envision an app that takes a few variables under the player's control -- e.g., fares paid, taxes paid, driver salary/benefits, different types of taxes -- as well as a couple of variables not under player control, such as fuel taxes, and unemployment levels. Bar charts would indicate the number of people stranded without transit service, total taxation, and the amount of money leaving the area in fuel costs. Another could indicate the amount of structural deficit not yet eliminated. A GIS-enabled map of Allegheny County would get lighter and darker according to the areas served or stranded by transit routes and the level of service provided on them.

Under this would have to be a fair amount of programming to display the map and all these variables. However, the greater difficulty would be in quantifying the effect of all these variables into a formula. Perhaps APTA or a transit-friendly think tank already has such a game that could be adapted for Pittsburgh's specific needs. Still, being able to see what happens under various scenarios may prove essential in selling this to the greater community, especially if explanations, definitions, links and other documentation are built into the games at various decision and display points. We cannot and will not convince the willingly close-minded, so don't try. Focus instead on those with open minds.

With all that said, it is only a suggestion, a plan, a hope. I cannot expect to be taken so seriously that my ideas are just dropped into place without challenge. I do hope, though, that my precepts are taken seriously. Some may doubt me, but I think it would be impossible to prove me wrong.


  1. Some good ideas Stu! I think you'd get some push-back from the hybrid owners of the area (yeah altruism doesn't run too deep I think) on the VMT, but it makes sense to me. I think Republicans might like that better since it "levels the playing field" on the tax...

  2. EDIT: June 22, 2011 -- I switched Beliefs #4 and #5, and shortened the one from this. I like the sentiment, but it was too wordy, so I'll preserve it in this comment.

    Belief #4: I chose transit as my primary means of transportation over 20 years ago when I still owned four cars. Doing so allowed me to shed three of them over a couple of years, thus saving my household $100,000 in the time since. In that time, I've devoted thousands of hours to thinking how best to get around when a single car must be shared by multiple family members, and countless hours more trying to convince people that the $5K/year I save by using transit is real, worth the trouble, and something anyone can do if they put their mind to it. Short of being forced, most don't care about transit, and the never-ending political battles only serve to deter anyone from wanting to try using it. I believe the battles must cease entirely if we want transit to succeed.