The San Francisco Chronicle is aghast that new 140-seat ferry boats between South San Francisco and Oakland/Alameda are filling an average of just 20 of their seats (scroll down to “On the line”). The service, which cost $42 million to start up, was expensive enough at projected ridership rates, but actual ridership so far is just a third of those projections. Even before such low ridership was known, the paper opined that the ferry service may not be “prudent.”
It’s too bad Bay Area papers don’t put their analytical skills to work on other transit systems. If the ferries are just one-seventh (14.3 percent) full, how full are other transit lines?
According to the 2010 National Transit Database (summary Excel file here), San Jose’s light-rail line is pathetic at 11.1 percent (one-ninth full). San Francisco Muni’s light rail is not much better at 11.6 percent. By comparison, the BART system is doing relatively well, operating at a healthy (?) 15.3 percent of capacity.
The Chronicle estimates that subsidies to the ferry service average $133 per trip, while subsidies to BART average just $6 per trip. That’s a little less than the Antiplanner’s 2010 calculation of $10.68 per trip on BART. But either of these calculations are for BART as a whole. The subsidies for the BART line to San Jose, which is in early construction phases, were estimated to be on the order of $100 per new transit rider. San Francisco’s Central Subway (which is really just a glorified tunnel for light-rail trains) is likely to be as expensive.
The agency running the South San Francisco ferry service says, “We don’t think it is useful to talk about [ridership] targets,” and hopes that ridership will grow in a couple of years. Maybe it will, but even if it fills every seat it will never recover its costs.
Are such investments prudent? Once you decide it is okay to lose $6 (or $10) per trip on BART, or $15 for the Sausalito ferry, or $100 per new trip on BART to San Jose, then why draw the line at (or below) $133 for a ferry ride? The Obama administration wants to rewrite the rules to make cost-effectiveness irrelevant in transit funding. If that happens, it won’t be long before we see projects costing $500 or more per trip. After all, most of that will probably be capital costs, and capital costs don’t count.
On the other hand, if you think that capital costs–not to mention maintenance, which transit agencies (and Amtrak) pretend is a capital cost–do count, then you have to wonder why any losses are tolerated. Why not just invest in transit (and other transportation) that pays for itself? Stop spending sales taxes and other general funds on highways. Stop spending federal income taxes and other general funds on airports. Stop spending gasoline taxes and other highway user fees on transit.
New York Waterway began a private ferry service between Manhattan and New Jersey and, despite some financial troubles, is still going strong. There is no reason why transit everywhere shouldn’t operate the same basis: private and profitable.