I was at a community meeting last week where I heard someone suggest making the COTA bus system completely free.
While some at the meeting dismissed the idea as “prohibitively expensive,” it is worth noting that currently bus fares only make up one out of every five dollars of operating revenue for the COTA system. Making the system free would cost maybe $25 million, or 2 percent of total state and county funds. Not a negligible expense, but far from impossible.
Fiscal feasibility out of the way, the question then becomes what is the goal of free busing? The public has two main interests in subsidizing buses: transportation efficiency and transportation equity.
From an efficiency standpoint, cars exact costs on the public, as I wrote earlier this month, in the form of congestion, crash damage and injuries, emissions and infrastructure degradation. Subsidizing buses is an indirect way of reducing these costs; a more attractive public transit system will mean less people in cars, which will decrease congestion, crashes, emissions and road maintenance needs.
COTA’s shift from a coverage-focused transit plan to a ridership-focused transit plan represents a nod to this sort of thinking. By increasing frequency on key transit corridors, more people will bus rather than drive.
There are more efficient ways to reduce car usage, though. A per-mile tax on driving (whether through a vehicle miles traveled fee, as a recent Dispatch editorial suggested, or a gas tax, which approximates a per-mile charge) would encourage more walking, biking, busing and telecommuting — all options that reduce the negative impacts of driving.
In general, local governments have few options to assess direct fees on driving, so transit subsidies become a second-best option.
For a more efficient transit system, city and county leaders need to work with the state to find ways to enact vehicle miles traveled fees to bring the private cost of driving in line with the social cost. The recent Short North parking reform is one example of doing just this.
From an equity standpoint, busing subsidies are an indirect way to alleviate poverty. If most people on buses are low-income, a transit subsidy represents a transfer to those who need assistance most.
Unfortunately, this is an ineffective way to target those in poverty. A new bus line does little good for a family that needs child care, quality education, housing or food. The most effective way to help these families is to give them the power to make their own family decisions, and that means giving them cash.
This column originally appeared in Columbus Alive.