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Minnesota 2020 Journal: No One Rides for Free

June 20, 2014 By John Van Hecke, Publisher

Riding public buses and trains requires paying a fare. Driving Minnesota’s roads does not. Both transportation methods carry considerable public costs, yet conservative policy advocates only criticize public transit for not covering all operating expenses with fees. They deftly ignore highway subsidies. In the process, these critics purposefully miss the point of public transportation infrastructure, moving Minnesota forward, literally and figuratively.

All transportation systems achieve extraordinary social good. From facilitating emergency services to expanding business growth, roads, bridges, rail, airports and waterways get Minnesotans to where they want to go. Minnesota tangibly benefits through expanded economic activity. 

The new Green Line LRT opened last weekend to enthusiastic public reception, 75,000 eager riders and 11 bedraggled anti-transit protestors. Despite persistent rain that compelled canceling many opening day activities, riders came out in droves. Several people, sharing their Green Line experience with me, enthusiastically capped their comments with “and it was free!” That’s inaccurate. What riders should have said was, “This day, I paid no fare past that portion of my taxes that fund transportation needs!”

Marking the Green Line opening and to promote public transit use, Metro Transit levied no rider fares this past weekend for buses or trains. They wanted everyone to use public transit, not just the new Green Line. Forgoing fare revenue is the equivalent of shifting that portion of the operating budget to the marketing department’s line item. Every organization, business, nonprofit or government agency, markets itself. Some spend massive sums while others spend next to nothing. Alerting the public to the organizations product or service is the end goal.

Consider how food producers introduce a product. They distribute samples, typically at a point of purchasing decision making, like a grocery store. Whether a jam-smeared cracker, a toothpick-skewered cheese cube or a half-ounce slug of juice dispensed in a tiny paper cup, product marketers just want the consumer to give it a try. Not everyone will like the sample enough to purchase the product. Not every purchaser will become a long-term, reliably regular purchaser because people have different needs, expectations and budgets. But, as any marketer will tell you, no marketing effort means no sales.

Food producers don’t look at product samples as lost sales. They’re working within a marketing budget from funds built into the product’s price. Their goal is to increase sales and improve market share. It’s not lost revenue but a savvy investment of operating funds. Last weekend’s Metro Transit riders weren’t riding for free; their fare was, in effect, covered by the marketing budget in the hope that riders increase their use of trains and buses. The net result of increased transit system ridership is increased operational economies of scale and, critically, increased highway capacity for vehicle users such as trucks carrying raw materials or finished goods. In other words, we’re getting more for investing a little.

This is the systemic point that anti-tax conservatives miss. It’s all about doing more with less yet less can never be nothing. Fundamentally, contemporary conservatives seem to want the world to stand still, if not retreat to some mythic past point. These desires each contain a glaring problem; the world doesn’t stand still and the past was never, ever as great as we remember it.

The Green Line LRT replaces a streetcar system abandoned sixty years earlier. Find someone old enough to remember riding it and they’ll wax nostalgic, recalling youth more than rider conditions. The old streetcars were uncomfortable, loud, drafty and functionally unheated. Track and power line maintenance was costly. No technology lasts forever; cities moved on to buses. The LRT is the next step in forward progression, serving to expand service, manage operational costs and stimulate economic growth.

The world doesn’t stand still. Recognize that, create public policy that improves people’s choices, engages true market competition and Minnesota moves forward. Protesting the Green Line LRT is cursing the darkness rather than lighting a single candle. It might feel good for a moment, but in the end you still can’t see what’s going on around you. We all own our public transportation system because we all pay for it, sometimes directly but mostly indirectly. No one rides for free. Everyone has a stake in its success.

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