Should St. Louis Make Mass Transit Free?

346519139_4af4e316de_m.jpgPhoto by klabusta via Flickr.

Like so many systems around the country, St. Louis’s Metro is facing a devastating budget crisis. And yet St. Louis Urban Workshop, one of the newer members of the Streetsblog Network, is adding its voice to a highly counterintuitive chorus of people
who are calling not for fare increases to help fund the systems — but
for eliminating the farebox altogether. Some have suggested that free
mass transit be seen as a stimulus measure. Even MarketWatch,
part of the Wall Street Journal’s digital network, has run an editorial
in favor of making mass transit free, saying, "This is not as
far-fetched as it looks."

So how would St. Louis replace the
20 percent of revenues the system gets from fares? here’s what St.
Louis Urban Workshop suggests:

The region
could charge employers (businesses, government offices, universities,
co-ops, etc.) $1 per employee every day that he or she travels to the
workplace. This works out to a one-time "wage increase" of 12.5¢ per
hour. That’s not very much. If regional employers would commit to mass
transit in the mode of Washington University and fully subsidize
employee travel we would be there.

The region could also
implement a 1% sales tax to fund mass transit. We could
redistribute spending on roads. We could also end the wasteful use of
TIF for retail development, a practice that distorts commercial
development and produces zero net gain for the St. Louis MSA (report here).
We
should also ensure that the system is useful and require retail
developments to make accommodations for mass transit (bus
turnaround/stop, walking connections to Metrolink, etc.) or pay a fee
to build accommodations elsewhere.

Free-transit plans have come up before in New York and other places. Is there any real prospect of their implementation? 

Elsewhere around the network, the National Journal opens a thread on what role public-private partnerships might play in the future of the American transportation system; Twin Cities Streets for People reports on a drop in crime near a new greenway in Minneapolis; and Trains for America digs into the reasons for an improvement in Amtrak’s on-time performance.

  • Which is true:

     The “cost” of free public transit is 60 basis pts of sales tax.
     Free transit is in place now in many towns.
     $x of free transit saves $x + n in auto externalities.
     There is an international movement for free public transit.
     Collecting fares costs more than not collecting fares.
     All of the above.

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