According to ColoradoPolitics.com, the state of Colorado ranks 29th in per capita funding for transit, spending just one-twentieth of the national average. Thus, transit is getting “left by the roadside.” This is highly misleading. In fact, Colorado apparently ranks 29th in state transit funding. That’s because most of the funding for transit comes from the regional level.
The misleading-news site’s misleading data are based on a report by a Boulder group known as the South West Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), which is urging the state legislature to spend more money on transit. But this recommendation is based on three fallacies.
First is the fallacy that more spending on transit leads to more transit ridership. In fact, the state with the highest state per capita transit funding is Alaska, which has far from the highest level of per capita ridership. Just 1.6 percent of Alaska commuters take transit to work, compared with 5.5 percent nationally. Other states spending more on transit than Colorado, but not attracting a lot of people to transit, include Vermont, Tennessee, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. About 2.3 percent of Wyoming commuters take transit to work; in the other states listed here, it’s less than 1.5 percent.
Instead of increasing transit, state funding too often goes for transit boondoggles, not transit operations that could increase ridership. Florida state taxpayers gave $89 million to an Orlando commuter train that carries just 1,800 weekday roundtrips, and are about to spend $41 million on a Ft. Lauderdale streetcar line that will carry even fewer. The state of Tennessee contributed nearly $4 million to a Nashville commuter train that carries only about 500 weekday roundtrips. New Mexico spent tens of millions on a train between Santa Fe and Albuquerque that carries just 1,700 daily round trips. These projects were a complete waste of taxpayer dollars.
The second fallacy is that increasing transit ridership saves energy. As the Antiplanner has shown in the past, transit uses almost exactly the same amount of energy per passenger mile as automobiles. While some forms of rail transit use less energy than buses, the energy cost of building rail lines often greatly exceeds the annual energy savings that might be expected during the life of the project.
The third fallacy is that state funding is needed for transit in every state. In fact, states differ widely on their transit policies. Some states spend more on transit than others because they don’t have regional transit agencies that cross municipal boundaries. Maryland is a small state with a lot of smaller counties, and rather than have a separate transit agency in each county, the state runs all of the transit. This allows it to score high on SWEEP’s list.
Other states spend a lot of transit because they haven’t given transit agencies the authority to collect their own taxes. The Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) serves five counties but doesn’t have a dedicated sales or property tax to fund it. Instead, it gets nearly half its funds from the state. Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is the same.
Denver, the only metropolitan area in Colorado whose transit system extends across more than one county, has a regional transit district (RTD) funded by sales taxes collected in that region. So, unlike Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, RTD doesn’t need to rely on state funding.
Ironically, transit agencies dependent on state funding spend a lot of time complaining that, unlike agencies such as Denver’s RTD, they don’t have a dedicate source of funds and instead have to rely on the uncertainties of annual appropriations by the state legislature. SWEEP thinks that Colorado transit would be better off relying on such appropriations. In other words, it wants to have its dedicated fund and get state funds too. As usual, transit advocates are never satisfied and always want more money.