Yesterday I read among the comments to last week’s post on fixing federal transportation funding that the Bay Area spends two-thirds of its transportation money on public transportation while barely one-tenth of commuters actually use it.
Another comment expressed incredulity over that figure, considering how much money it takes to maintain roads and highways, not to mention the $5.7 billion going into replacing the Bay Bridge’s eastern span.
But the immediately apparent bottom line is correct, according to Randy Rentschler, spokesman and lobbyist for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The commission’s initial framework for its 2030 transportation and growth plan calls for 63 percent of the revenue the Bay Area receives to be spent on public transportation. That’s comparable to the proportion of transportation funding that now goes into transit vs. roads and highways, he told me.
But there’s much more to this. Non-public transportation has a lot of money flowing around that isn’t included in the MTC’s calculations.
“There’s a huge amount of private money that’s spent on the roadway system that we don’t count,” Rentschler said. That uncounted private funding includes the daily $16 of gas, $15 of car payment, $4 of insurance I pay if I drive to work 22 days a month. (Now that you mention it, I’ve just decided to get back to the bike/train routine Monday, rain or shine).
While all of that money remains out of the equation, the $20+ on train fare and perhaps $3.50 on AC Transit bus fare I spend daily when I do choose to reduce my carbon footprint is included, even though it’s a private expenditure. Thus one source of revenue is counted, the other is not.
So if we consider that, in 2005, the most recent year for which I have stats at arm’s length, Bay Area motorists drove nearly 58 billion miles, at AAA’s average U.S. operating cost of 52 cents a mile, that’s $30.2 billion to add to our transportation funding formula, and that still doesn’t include the purchase price of new cars.
That’s like a once-in-a-generation statewide transportation bond measure, but just for the Bay Area. We all, collectively and for the most part unwittingly, agreed to approve and finance that funding package.
So here’s the new math: $3 billion a year for transit, including fares paid by individual commuters, and $31.9 billion a year for the streets, roads and vehicles that operate upon them. That would be 8.5 percent of the Bay Area’s transportation spending.
Now, even if you don’t appreciate my work with the solar calculator, consider the value of public transit, at least in the eyes of Bay Area residents.
“Voters have voted to support transit regularly,” Rentschler told me. “It’s odd,” he continued, ”everybody supports transit to a large extent,” but few of them actually ride it on a regular basis.
Does this make any sense? People support the idea of transit, almost in the abstract.
But back in May, right after a MacArthur Maze ramp went down in flames, and again over Labor Day weekend, when the Bay Bridge was closed for 3 1/2 days, you could see how a few people using transit benefited everyone, even those who choose to spend $30 billion a year on cars, trucks, macadam and bridges.
Ridership on BART and other transit services went up to untold levels, but still amounted to less than what I can’t imagine was more a fifth of those traveling.
But that small margin of transit users made the difference between free-flowing freeways and gridlock, so one could argue that the 8 percent of transportation funds that went into subsidizing those train, bus and ferry trips was a good deal for all.
And to take it one step further, one might conclude that the money spent on transit is really part of a clever program to make the Bay Area’s roads and freeways more efficient.