Mass transit stumbles again

| May 15, 2008

Having lived in the Washington DC area for a total of nearly 8 years (and in the District itself for six of those years), I was a big fan and user of the Metro, their subway systems. However, the Metro was was always struggling with funding and maintenance issues, which puzzled me a bit since the Metro was heavily used (to say the least). But, then again, it’s the District.

So now I live outside of Denver, which has been developing its own (above-ground) mass transit system (RTD) over the last several years. The recent spike in gasoline prices has increased ridership on both the RTD light-rail trains and the RTD buses. Finally, mass transit gets to shine, right? Isn’t this the ideal situation for mass transit?

Uh, well, no. RTD may have to cut services because it can’t handle the increased traffic along with the rise in its own fuel prices (emphasis mine):

RTD buses and trains are attracting new riders in record numbers as fuel costs and congestion drive more commuters to abandon their cars.

In fact, ridership is up so much that the agency is having difficulty keeping up with the costs of moving all those new customers.

RTD had an 11 percent increase in ridership last year and, through the first quarter of this year, is up another 8 percent.

But the transit agency is falling victim to its own success as it spends more for fuel while contending with flat sales tax revenue that’s combined to create a potential $24 million shortfall that could force service cuts.

As the agency adds buses to its most crowded routes, it is paying 55 percent more than it did a year ago to fill them with diesel fuel.

Worse, RTD is far off budget in revenue collections. Even with the unexpected increase in riders, farebox revenue is 3.3 percent lower than anticipated in spite of a general fare increase that took effect in January. . . .

And sales taxes, the backbone of RTD’s budget, are nearly 6 percent below budget through March.

I’m a fan — at least, in theory and in terms of my own use — of mass transit, but here’s my question: is there a mass transit system in the US today that is actually self-sufficient? That is, it pays for itself strictly (or even just mostly) by fares and other revenues, not by subsidies from local, state, or federal taxes? ..bruce w..

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Category: Economics, Environment, Main, US Politics

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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  1. cwcushman says:

    My question is why do we always assume that mass transit has to be self-sufficient? I read somewhere once that not even India’s rail system, the most heavily used system in the world, can operate without government subsidies.

    When mass transit is seen as a government service, comparable to water, education, police / fire, roads, etc. and not as a “company” then it will start to operate as intended. Right now we have systems trying to break even with the end result being sporadic service and a large contingent of people opting for other means of transportation.

    A great example is the Coaster in San Diego County. It does not operate on Sundays or weekend evenings which means I drive downtown when I would much rather take the public transportation. And there is a market; they run special trains for the baseball games that are heavily used.