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Communal Transit Thievery

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One rhetorical device I like using in communal transit discussions is, “For every dollar a rider puts in the farebox, he is stealing two more dollars from someone who never rides.” That ridership numbers are sometimes higher than expected then comes as little surprise. It is as if people are being paid to take the bus.

My rhetoric is usually met by some standard pro-transit rhetoric. “Autos are subisidized, too!” “Autos cause too much pollution!” “No blood for oil!” “People are just prisoners of auto-centric planning!” “Road subsidies are huge compared to transit!” And, quite often, “You’re mean!” and “You’re an idiot!”

These canards—forgetting the last two—have a shortcoming when compared to my line. They violate logic. The best rhetoric is based on fact, putting sound reasoning into motivational language. The pro-transit crowd seemingly cannot be bothered with reasoned argument.

But transit-bashing is not my point right now. I only want to establish a local factual reference for my own rhetoric. In a September 25th, 2008, article about pricing rides on the Northstar commuter rail line, the StarTribune reported:

[Metropolitan] Council members said they believe customers should pay more of the line's annual operating cost. At the prices initially proposed, fares would cover 18 to 24 percent of projected operating costs in 2010, the Northstar line's first full year of service. For other bus and train service in the Twin Cities region, customers pay about 35 percent.

Fares cover 35% of average operating cost. Or, for evey dollar put in the farebox, two more dollars have to be taken from someone not riding in order to pay for the trip. Q.E.D.

Those with the integrity to look deeper into the total subsidy for communal transit will have to account for capital cost in addition to operating cost. Before the riders can start their thievery, someone must build the rail bed and buy the buses. All those millions must come from somewhere.

Depending on the extent of cost overruns and bureaucratic inefficiencies, capital cost represents and additional couple of dollars in theft. True, increasing ridership does reduce the per-trip capital cost of communal transit. But it is still 100% thievery.

Is it any more just if a robber only takes two dollars from your pocket instead of your whole wad? Theft is theft. And theft is wrong. The thief’s moral convictions or sloppy reasoning not withstanding.