It’s time for the state to put the brakes on funding for public transit systems across North Carolina. That’s a major recommendation in a new Policy Report prepared for the John Locke Foundation.
The state’s 10 largest transit systems are eating up a larger chunk of the state budget, but they do little to meet their stated goals, the report says. “Contrary to popular belief, the 10 systems have a miniscule impact on congestion reduction or air quality improvement,” said study author David Hartgen, Professor of Transportation Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Winston-Salem’s transit system relies more heavily than any other system on rider fares. Riders contribute 27 percent of the system’s operating costs. In contrast, bus riders in Greensboro pick up the smallest percentage of costs among the 10 systems studied. Greensboro riders contribute 11 percent of the system’s operating costs. The statewide average is 17.5 percent.
Taxpayers foot $3.87 of the bill for every bus trip in Greensboro. That’s the highest figure for any municipal bus system studied. Only the Triangle Transit Authority ($6.90) had a higher taxpayer subsidy. Winston-Salem’s taxpayer subsidy is lower than the state average at $2.07.
Overall, the 10 transit systems studied contribute just 0.28 percent of the overall daily regional travel miles, according to Hartgen’s report. That’s the figure you get when you factor in bus riders who have no cars. Greensboro (0.15 percent) and Winston-Salem (0.19 percent) both fall below the average.
Some public transit systems are relying more heavily on state funding. Hartgen’s projections show the state will be paying more than 25 percent of the operating costs for six of the 10 transit systems by 2010. Systems with the largest projected state taxpayer subsidy that year will be Wilmington, 45.1 percent; Asheville, 30.7 percent; Chapel Hill, 30.2 percent; Raleigh, 26.6 percent; Durham, 26.3 percent; and Triangle Transit Authority, 25.9 percent.
Hartgen’s report recommends that the state cut back state support for local transit systems, while ensuring that riders pay more for transit service. Local transit officials should also rewrite their mission statements and long-range plans to reflect their key role in helping people who need mobility. The report also calls for more privatization of transit systems, and it asks the General Assembly to delay funding for light rail systems in Charlotte, the Triangle, and the Triad until Charlotte’s South Boulevard corridor confirms usage expectations. The 10-mile Charlotte light rail line, currently under construction for $428 million, is expected to open in late 2007.
Specific recommendations for Winston-Salem include revising the long-range plan to focus less on the system’s declining usage and more on helping people with mobility needs; limiting dependence on state support; consolidating WSTA and Trans-AID services; asking riders to pay 25 percent of costs; purchasing smaller vehicles; and reconsidering regional consolidation.
For Greensboro, specific recommendations include scrapping the goal of doubling ridership in five years, focusing instead on meeting mobility needs; setting caps on government support; coordinating with human service agencies; asking riders to pay 25 percent of costs; contracting out specialized services; and revisiting regional consolidation.
“The time has come to re-assess the direction of these systems and their roles in each community’s transportation picture,” Hartgen said.
The report examines performance trends for the state’s 10 largest transit systems from 1997 to 2003. It also forecasts performance through 2010. Hartgen reviewed urban systems in Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Fayetteville, Asheville, and Wilmington. The report also examines the university student-oriented system in Chapel Hill and Raleigh-Durham’s commuter-oriented Triangle Transit Authority.
The 10 largest systems carry about 41 million riders each year. The services cost $127 million. The number of riders increased 37 percent from 1997 to 2003, while the total amount of service increased 64 percent. Operating costs doubled during that same time period.
State and federal taxpayers are bearing more of the costs, according to the report. The state’s share of transit operating costs grew from 11 percent in 1997 to nearly 16 percent in 2003. In the next four years, that percentage could grow to 19 percent. “By 2010, overall operating costs will exceed $200 million,” Hartgen said. “Most systems are increasing their dependence on state and federal government and are reducing support from riders and local government.”
While the state and federal transportation bill is growing, the transit systems are not drawing people away from the cars that clog city roads, the report says. A typical trip on a public transit system is slower than a trip by car. Many transit riders are lower-income workers who have no access to cars.
“Riders use the systems primarily as ‘stepping stones’ for improving personal mobility,” Hartgen said. “The systems serve less than one-half of 1 percent of regional commuting and impact about one-quarter of 1 percent of regional air pollution or congestion.”
That’s why Hartgen endorses “an across-the-board reassessment of the role of transit services in the state’s largest regions.” He makes a series of recommendations for state and local leaders.
First, the state should tie state funding to guarantees that local transit systems will rewrite their mission statements and long-range plans. Those plans should delete all references to reducing congestion and curbing air pollution. “Transit systems should change their plans and goals to reflect their service as important mobility providers for low-income citizens who are striving to move up the economic ladder,” Hartgen said.
Second, North Carolina should limit state funding to no more than 25 percent of the transit system’s total operating costs. And riders should pay at least 25 percent of the costs through their fares.
Third, increases in state funding should be tied to inflation and growth in the number of riders. Fourth, state and local officials should look for ways to privatize transit systems.
Fifth, the state should limit local requests for capital expansion. Sixth, lawmakers should delay state funding for light rail proposals in the Triangle, Charlotte, and the Triad until local transit officials show that actual usage figures confirm their earlier estimates.
“Most systems have stated visions that show considerable disconnect with the reality of their operations,” Hartgen said. “The most serious weakness is the wide disparity between the very low usage and the vision of impact on community travel patterns and environmental impacts.”
David Hartgen’s Policy Report, “Policy versus Performance: Directions for North Carolina’s Largest Transit Systems,” is at the Locke Foundation’s web site. For more information, please contact David Hartgen at 704-687-4308 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact JLF communications director Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].