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the 63% solution

By enelson
Friday, January 25th, 2008 at 6:09 pm in BART, Bay Bridge, Bridges, driving, Environment, fuel, Funding, Transit vs. driving.

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.

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25 Responses to “the 63% solution”

  1. murphstahoe Says:

    You haven’t even scratched the surface Eric. I still bet that when you factor in what REALLY is spent using public funds we actually spend more public money supporting driving vs transit. SBR is using narrow sighted logic.

    First salvo – parking lots. Does a public parking garage owned by SF get counted as “transportation”? If we are going to count the transbay terminal – then we have to count parking too. Even if a parking lot takes in revenue, a garage in the Marina will take in more taxes as a business of as housing.

    If we start counting private dollars spent to build parking – forget about it – that number boggles the mind

  2. timote Says:

    Thanks for this clarification. I saw that statistic from the MTC as well in a survey – that we are spending roughly 2/3 on public transit and I was shocked.

    The world is now back to normal in my head, at least for a little while.

    The statistic that I’d love to see, although it is likely difficult to practically achieve, is a direct commute comparison: how much does the average Bay Area person spend privately and how much is spent publicly for commute drive-vs-transit? I’m going to use my car at night and on the weekends, so including all miles driven in the Bay Area seems high for a the comparison, but I’d love to get a commute-only comparison…

  3. murphstahoe Says:

    2nd salvo – I like this one so much I could not resist a 2nd response.

    California Highway Patrol

  4. South Bay Resident Says:


    If the total costs of transit and driving are the same, then it seems that it would make sense to dismantle the transit system right now because driving provides a much quicker travel time than does public transit and requires much less government involvement (at least according to the census transit users have something like 1.5 times the average commute time of drivers). Of course, I don’t believe that. There are a few contexts in which public transit probably makes economic sense. One is ferrying people between the East Bay and San Francisco. The financial district could not exist without BART or some other form of high capacity mass transit across the bay. Similarly, local bus service within San Francisco is immensely valuable. I have no complaint with these services. Outside of San Francisco and a few parts of the east bay, public transit has very little role in moving large numbers of people. It is, however, valuable as a social welfare service, providing some mobility to those who are unable to drive due to poverty or infirmity.
    The problem is that transit spending is often poorly matched both in terms of service characteristics and location with the need. For example, the eBART project, which will move maybe 3,000 people per day for $500,000,000. In this case, you could pave the ROW for maybe $30 million and move just as many people more quickly. Heck, throw in a direct ramp to the BART station for another $20 million, you still save $64 dollars for EVERY PERSON IN THE 9 COUNTY REGION. Fundamentally, if there aren’t 12,000 or more people per square mile, then transit will be a niche player. Since most people in the bay area don’t want to live in such conditions, we need to be realistic about who we are and focus our transportation spending on transportation modes that will work well in the urban form that we actually prefer to live in. This means less suburban transit service and more suburban roads.

    It’s worth noting that over the past 20 years the great and the good in Bay Area government have sought higher densities and directed a disproportionate share of area resources into transit. In that time, transit’s market share has fallen and the population density of the region has become more uniform at a level far below that that will support transit.

  5. South Bay Resident Says:

    BTW, This is the source of the problems in Bay Area transportation:

  6. South Bay Resident Says:

    oops, I meant the TRANSPORTATION problems.

  7. Capricious Commuter Says:

    SBR, that’s a major hoot! It would be even funnier if it weren’t so true. I must say, I was grateful this evening for all the people who rode the Capitol Corridor so I could drive home with little delay.

  8. The Overhead Wire Says:

    “Fundamentally, if there aren’t 12,000 or more people per square mile, then transit will be a niche player. Since most people in the bay area don’t want to live in such conditions, we need to be realistic about who we are and focus our transportation spending on transportation modes that will work well in the urban form that we actually prefer to live in.”

    I have to take issue with this comment calling density “such conditions”. I don’t think that everyone wants to live in suburban neighborhoods as not everyone wants to live in urban neighborhoods. But if you’re going to build suburban roads and waste energy in that way you should pay for it. Eric only scratched the surface of the investment in transportation that goes towards cars, and we don’t discuss the negative externalities that relate to land consumption, water usage, massive utility expansion and upkeep, dependence on foreign oil etc.

    I’m reminded of a study that Portland did in 1994 discussing the amount of Vehicle miles traveled per resident according to where they lived. People in the most suburban areas with limited transit traveled 21 miles per capita a day. People in the most urban areas with good transit traveled 9.8 miles per day. For each person thats a difference of 11 miles a day. Using this calculation, the benefit of the Portland Streetcar and its generation of over 7000 housing units downtown can reduce VMT by 53 million miles a year. That’s not a small number and shows how much of our resources we are wasting on conventional auto oriented suburban development. I believe it was James Howard Kunstler who said our post war suburban lifestyle is the greatest mis-allocation of resources in history.

  9. The True Cost of Driving « Transbay Blog Says:

    […] True Cost of Driving A post at The Capricious Commuter, a blog that Erik Nelson maintains for Inside Bay Area, reveals how although we seem to keep good […]

  10. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    The problem with all these statistics is that they reflect different things. The cost of mass transit may include police services, as BART and other systems have their own. On the other hand, except for highways patrolled by the Highway Patrol, primary police services are provided by the local police, and are paid out of general funds. This is not a big deal for the transit companies, as there is very little crime on them, but auto theft and auto burglary are the most prevalent crimes there are (90% in my local area), excluding traffic offenses (about 10 times all other categories). Liability is another big issue, as transit companies pay for their expenses, while local governments tend to be liable for streets and roads. Of course, this contradicts what was said about the “relative government involvement” of cars versus transit, as these are liabilities incurred by the local governments for every street, every hour of every day.

    The question of how dense the population has to be to support transit does not ask the same question about streets or roads. There is no way on earth that the Devil’s Slide has ever paid the cost it takes to keep it open, for a blatant example. But the chances are that the street where you live does not generate enough income from the cars that use it to maintain it. Even for transit, the amount spent is skewed by the belief that you need more density to support transit, so that more money per capita is spent where the population is denser. The ridership of other transit systems might be the same as that of the Muni if the spending per capita were the same.

    One thing that does not get discussed is that the #1 transportation method, in terms of frequency and time used, plus the amount of taxes and user fees it generates, is walking, and the government spending on that is barely tracked at all!

  11. DensityDuck Says:

    “The ridership of other transit systems might be the same as that of the Muni if the spending per capita were the same.”

    Isn’t that the same thing the top post is trying to say? Or, rather, that the per-capita total spending on private transit is much higher than per-capita total spending on public transit.

    Although that does give us a useful insight into the degree to which public transit is subsidized. That “daily $16 of gas, $15 of car payment, $4 of insurance” is entirely funded by private sources. Imagine if a one-way BART ticket cost $17.50!

  12. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    I am just trying to say that it is all very complicated.

    On that point, Eric is paying almost the same amount to take the train and a bus to work as that $35 a day in gas, car payment, and insurance. In fact, the car payment and insurance has to be paid whether he drives or takes transit, so the only incremental cost is the $16 worth of gas, and he is paying more than that. (He should also decrease the car payment by the residual value of the car once it is paid off, and average it over the length of time he uses it afterwards, as well as what he sells if for. All of this makes it very difficult to figure out exactly what he is paying.) I think that Eric left a $4 toll out of his calculation, but it is still cheaper for him to drive.

    You could pay more than $16.00 a day to ride BART enough to travel the mileage the average driver would get on $16 worth of gas. If there are two people in the car, they definitely would pay more on BART.

    It just goes to prove that old saying, that there is no problem so complicated that it cannot be looked at in the right way so that it becomes much more complicated.

  13. Fred Camino Says:

    South Bay Resident said:

    …driving provides a much quicker travel time than does public transit and requires much less government involvement…

    When’s the last time you had to pass a government test to ride public transit? When’s the last time you had to register with the government as a public transit rider? Does the government enforce how old you must be to get around using public transit? Has anyone ever asked to see your government issued public transit rider’s license? Does the government require you to pay for public transit insurance? What is the legal limit for intoxication for a transit rider? Is there a publication called “Digest of Public Transit Laws” that shows just how much the government defines your mobility, what many would consider a natural right?

  14. Seven Says:

    In answer to Fred’s question. My 16 year old niece regularly gets asked for ID on Muni by drivers who don’t believe she’s under 18 when she flashes her Fastpass. She has even been denied entrance onto Muni buses because she did not have ID (she has no drivers license and she is homeschooled so no student ID) and the driver did not believe her age.

  15. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Bruce, you’re correct that I did not consider the residual value of my car once it’s paid off. Certainly people who have cars that are paid off aren’t spending as much as I am. On the other hand, when we calculate public transit expenditures, we don’t just count depreciation when we buy a new bus, BART car or mile of new right-of-way. You’re also right that on the other side of the ledger, I forgot to count the $4 toll. Darn FasTrak. It’s like you’re not paying anything.

  16. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    No, depreciation is counted in transit expenditures. Their budgets include the cost of acquisition, maintenance, disposal, and replacement of capital assets, which is depreciation. It all gets averaged in.

    Of course, there is no depreciation in right-of-way, just in the improvements made to it. Actually, that is an interesting subject in street construction. Most new streets are not paid for from public funds, as we have been discussing them. They are put in by developers, and added to the price of the properties when they are sold. That expense becomes a private tax on the properties in the development, which is not reflected in the MTC budget.

    The darn Translink will be the same as FasTrak, if they ever get it working correctly. Until then, it is worse!

  17. Eric Schatmeier Says:

    Even if the numbers weren’t fallacious, the “imbalance” is justified because the auto’s infrastructure is already at full build-out (despite boondoggles like the Bay Bridge project) while transit’s infrastructure has been systematically dismantled over the years. Transit carries a small percentage of travellers only because transit is still impractical or unavailable for many in the Bay Area. And despite the seemingly high percentage for transit, the level of investment is still pathetically small, especially compared to the overwhelming need.
    Related to this, I’d like also to comment on a view of history contained in some of your responses and elsewhere. This is the view that, despite all the “investment” in transit over the past 25 years, Bay Area ridership hasn’t increased. History is not so simple, however, because the “investment” has been uneven, at best. Huge expenditures have been made in upgrading BART and Caltrain over that time and BART carries nearly three times as many daily riders today as it did in 1982, while Caltrain’s ridership is more than 2-1/2 times what it was, even though the trains still don’t go to downtown San Francisco. By contrast, services offered by such systems as Golden Gate and AC Transit are a shadow of what they were then, having undergone almost constant service cut/fare increase cycles that sapped growth and ridership. What we’ve learned from this is not that investment is wasted. Instead we’ve learned that if we make bad transit worse, we lose riders. If, on the other hand, we make bad transit mediocre, we get enormous gains. Just imagine the benefit if the level of investment provided the resources for GOOD transit. Whatever the percentage of transportation funds invested in transit, we’re nowhere near that level.

  18. miked Says:

    The Onion article is great because it illustrates hypocrisy and an interesting economics problem.

    People want other people to ride transit but don’t want to ride it themselves. Many economists I know would respond by asking how much they want other people to ride transit, meaning how much are they willing to pay for other people to ride transit. This is exactly what happens when transit is subsidized- the general public pays people to take transit by reducing the needed fare for transit.

    I know all the car drivers hate the idea of paying to drive, but this is the logic for congestion pricing in areas where there is a viable transit alternative. When you set a congestion price, the people paying to drive are also paying other people to take transit. It seems to work in London with the Tube and it may work in New York if Bloomberg has his way. I would be interested to see what happens in bus-dominated cities such as San Francisco and Rome if they had a congestion price. People don’t like to take the slow bus, but the bus will get a lot faster if the charge reduces traffic.


    PS- Capricious Commuter, thanks for refiguring the costs. Would it be difficult to consider what share of taxpayer money went to transit vs roads for driving? I know this would miss many costs like police, pollution, and war in Iraq, but it would still bring the 63% figure closer to a fair comparison.

  19. DensityDuck Says:

    Miked, I’d be happy to ride transit if it didn’t take 50% longer than the longest commute I’ve ever had as a solo driver. I’d go by the VTA Light Rail, which takes you through downtown San Jose whether you need to go there or not.

  20. Seven Says:

    My commute: San Francisco to Burlingame = 27 minutes driving or 95 minutes Muni to BART to Burlingame Shuttle. That 95 minutes is quite variable depending on the very erratic Muni 28 bus.

  21. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Seven, how did you arrive at the 28 Bus-Bart-Shuttle combination? Did you use I’m wondering if there might be a faster way by eliminating BART.

  22. Fritz Says:

    I halfway wished the Amtrak strike would have happened just so we can see what adding 40,000 more people to Hwy 101 and 280 would have done to the commute.

  23. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Bite your tongue, Fritz! I hate driving I-80 enough without the thought of all those train commuters out there too. Besides, it’s a new month tomorrow and I’m going to get a new monthly pass and settle back into the train routine. Now if they would just get wi-fi…

  24. miked Says:

    For a moment I had the same thought about the strike. Then I realized that I don’t own a car and I was very afraid of how slow buses would be in the train-less traffic.

  25. Seven Says:

    Actually, does give me a slightly faster route (save 7 minutes each way) by using Samtrans ($3/day) instead of the free Burlingame Shuttle.

    So, is it worth saving 14 minutes per day for $3? Maybe.

    My solution is to save a whole lot more time by driving.

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