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Another Big Lie

August 14, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
One of the salient policy "advocacy" developments of our time has been the far right's enthusiastic adoption of tactics once associated with the radical left. For example, conservatives now dominate the field of agit-prop political theater and imagery, such as waving tire gauges to mock a part of Barack Obama's energy conservation proposals.

Still, it's a surprise when the right resorts to the Big Lie, once the exclusive tool of the Worldwide Communist Conspiracy. But there it is in a recent email newsletter from the merry pranksters at the anti-tax, anti-government Minnesota Free Market Institute/Taxpayers League, headlined "Transit Costs More Than You Think." It claims that Metro Transit riders pay only 20 percent of the cost of bus and light-rail service.

That's off by a factor of at least 50 percent, thanks to bogus budget and fare-rate figures. MFMI/TL claims that Metro Transit's fares are $1. Guess again, guys. As anyone who's hopped on lately knows, it's $1.50 for basic off-peak service, as much as $2.75 for rush-hour freeway express rides.And those fares will go up a quarter come Oct. 1.

But wait, there's more: MFMI/TL puts Metro Transit's annual budget at $385 million. That's a statewide number, including operating funds for suburban opt-out bus service, Metro Mobility and rural van transit. Metro Transit's operating budget is actually $136 million less than MFMI/TL's propaganda would have it -- $249 million.

So let's clean up their math. With 78 million annual rides on Metro Transit (a 25-year high, and the one number MFMI/TL got right), the average cost is $3.19, not the $4.95 claimed by the pranksters. Then compare those with the real fares, and we find that even the basic rate returns 47 percent of operating costs, twice the national average for fare box recovery. Metro Transit, for whatever reason, reports considerably more modest user funding of 30 percent for buses and 38 percent for light rail.

MFMI/TL complains that the fare box shortfall is covered by statewide taxes, especially on motor vehicle sales, and local property levies that pay some of Metro Transit's capital costs. If that's a problem, I'm waiting for these guys to denounce the $1.6 billion annual property tax subsidy for roads and bridges in Minnesota, a figure roughly equal to all motorist user funding from state and federal fuel and vehicle taxes. I'm not holding my breath.

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