RALEIGH — Public transit costs much more money than driving, and North Carolina transit systems require huge subsidies to attract any riders at all. A leading national transportation expert reaches those conclusions in a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.
“Public transit costs an average of $1.15 per passenger mile in North Carolina, and nearly $1 of that total is subsidized,” said report author Randal O’Toole, Senior Fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. “That’s more expensive than the national average cost of 90 cents per passenger mile, with a subsidy of more than 70 cents from nontransit users.”
Breaking down the numbers even further, N.C. bus transit requires subsidies averaging 85 cents per passenger mile, while subsidies to Charlotte’s light rail system are “several times greater,” O’Toole said. “Overall, North Carolina transit riders pay an average of 72 cents every time they board a bus, while taxpayers pay an average of more than $3 to support that trip.”
Those numbers dwarf the cost of driving in North Carolina, O’Toole said. “Any way you look at it, the total cost of driving in North Carolina is no more than 22 cents per passenger mile,” he said. “Public transit is often portrayed as a low-cost, energy-efficient alternative to driving. In fact, public transit is much more costly than driving, requires huge subsidies, and generally uses more energy and emits more greenhouse gases than the average car.”
O’Toole’s report debunks myths about costs, subsidies, and environmental impacts of driving and public transit.
A popular myth involves highway subsidies, O’Toole said. “Contrary to popular belief, there are no federal subsidies to highways and few state subsidies,” he said. “The only real subsidies to North Carolina roads come from local governments. But if you add federal, state, and local numbers together, North Carolina highway users paid about $203 million more in user fees than was spent on roads in 2007. In other words, gas taxes and highway user fees are subsidizing other government programs.”
The report offers five sets of recommendations to provide better transit at a lower cost. “One of the major obstacles to change is that Congress has, intentionally or not, given transit agencies incentives to choose high-cost forms of transit,” O’Toole said. “Once these incentives are changed, it will be easier for transit agencies to adopt some or all of the recommended changes.”
First, smaller vehicles can save energy and “nimbly serve” more parts of each urban area, O’Toole said. “No more than a tiny fraction of the millions of passenger trips a major urban area sees each day will ever be taken by ‘big box’ forms of transit such as trains or buses.”
Second, contracting services out makes sense, O’Toole said. “Hiring private companies to operate buses and other transit vehicles can save taxpayers millions,” he said. “Contracting out also can spread available resources to more transit routes.”
Third, North Carolina’s urban areas would benefit from competitive “jitneys,” or shared taxis, O’Toole said. “These combinations of taxis and buses tend to be privately owned vehicles operating on fixed or semi-fixed routes,” he said. “More jitney services would allow more people to take advantage of door-to-door or near door-to-door services at a lower cost than taxis.”
Fourth, transit agencies could take the ultimate step of selling their assets to private operators, O’Toole said. “This would restore the system that prevailed in most American cities before 1964,” he said. “Private operators would have incentives to find the optimal-sized vehicle for each route and to run transit where people want to use it, not in every suburb that pays taxes to the transit agency.”
Fifth, state and local governments could give transportation vouchers or stamps to people who are too young, too old, or otherwise unable to drive themselves, O’Toole said. “Transit is important to people who have no access to cars, but more than 92 percent of North Carolina households have at least one car,” he said. “Instead of funding expensive transit agencies, funding vouchers would give people the mobility they need at a much lower cost to taxpayers.”
O’Toole questions a “major goal” of transit: persuading people to get out of their cars and to drive less. “Considering that the transit systems we know today are more expensive, less convenient, and have greater environmental impacts than driving, this goal is self-defeating,” he said. ” The changes recommended in this report could save North Carolina taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars while truly improving transit services for most people.”
Randal O’Toole’s Spotlight report, “Public Transit in North Carolina,” is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact O’Toole at (541) 460-3644 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].