Who needs CT buses? | OPINION

How necessary is public transportation? If you flunk your vision test when applying for a driver’s license, absolutely necessary. If you’re a student commuting from affordable housing to college, very essential. If driving a private car isn’t an option for any of a hundred other reasons, you need buses.

Community Transit is set for a new round of service changes beginning the 20th of February. As always, budget-conscious changes hit low-ridership routes hardest so that high density routes might be served better. To see how North County’s routes are affected, check CT’s route book at any Sno-Isle library branch.

Funding of public transportation is all screwed up. Bus systems must ante up one dollar for every federal dollar while the highway agency that supports car-commuters puts up only 25 cents. Federal money is earmarked for new buses only and can’t be used to cover expenses though much of the recent pinch resulted from inflated fuel costs, medical coverage and maintenance.

KOMO jolted riders in January of 2010 by announcing that CT was threatening massive changes including fare hikes and service cuts. With tax-based support in jeopardy, CT was facing an $11 million shortfall. Bus budgeteers proposed eliminating Sunday service, cutting selected routes and charging an additional 25 cents per ticket, all effective in June. Ouch.

When June came, CT slashed service by 20 percent, or 80,000 hours of bus service. Evening hours were chopped to hold onto high-traffic commuter routes. Each cut hurt riders, especially people living near the fringes of bus service. Rural service felt the axe first.

Cuts to service moved forward on the first day of September. Riders braced themselves for longer waits and fewer trips. Others were left to ponder how to get from Point A to Point B when Point A or Point B had disappeared from CT’s map. While population soared, regional bus service regressed to what it was eight years before.

Local bus service was cut because Community Transit lacked the funds to retain all of its routes and schedules. Conventional thinking says the transit agency must live within its revenue structure or shut down. Conventional critics ask, why shouldn’t bus service live by the same economics that dictate survival of businesses? Supporters claim that public transportation is a vital organ of any society and that if it is underfunded, then something’s wrong with both its revenue structure and the social values that define it.

CT depends on sales tax for two-thirds of its operating budget. If CT hadn’t already maxed out its own taxing authority, it might have covered shortfalls by issuing bonds. With income from sales tax down to 80 percent, relief is not in sight. Yet when it’s critical to get people to work, we curtailed the transportation system that connects homes with jobs. Yes, there is something the matter with this picture.

If the income of a dairy farm doesn’t cover expenses the cows still must be milked. So it is with bus fleets that get people to work. With the economy still in the doldrums, people still must be transported to jobs, shopping and medical services. Cutting them off from earning and spending money is a sure way to deepen a recession. It happens, in part, because too many of those who fund and plan bus service have made the personal choice to depend totally on cars.

Cost factors like $20 per day to park in Seattle suggest that public transport will become the people-mover of choice with private cars filling the gaps. When number-crunchers add all the costs of driving in car-addicted America, they find two groups of costs. First are private costs: cost of the vehicle, maintenance and service, fuel, tolls, license and insurance. Then come social costs that can’t be measured in direct exchange of money: lost productivity while stuck in traffic, health costs from breathing polluted air, toxic runoff from roadways, spills in waterways and loss of the nation’s capital to oil-exporting nations.

Private costs vary around $59 billion while social costs total somewhere in the neighborhood of $125 billion. About $56 billion is charged against health damage due to air pollution. These figures are, at best, approximations since it is impossible to draw a fine line between health effects of auto exhausts and other sources of pollution. While results of different studies come up with wildly different numbers, they are consistent in pegging the costs to society from private cars significantly higher than private owners’ costs.

Add the insanity of gridlocked daily commutes. Count the hours wasted during slow-downs and stoppages. Measure the acreages dedicated to driving and parking cars. We accept all that because it’s part of our culture. But alien visitors looking down on us from on high would rightfully think we’re crazy.

The problem is that today’s transportation priorities reflect yesterday’s realities, not current or future realities or needs. To get in tune with the needs of the times we need to bend. Maybe this recession was needed to help us understand that the future should necessarily look very different from the past.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


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