Why you can’t have bus service

Your community isn’t dense enough to justify using scarce transit operating funds to serve it. Providing service to your community would probably decrease overall ridership.

“Huh? If my neighborhood or City Council district represent, say, 10% of the population, then why shouldn’t we get 10% of the service?”

It would completely make sense for your community to get the same per capita bus service dollars if it cost the same dollar amount to serve every Austinite. But what if providing bus service to your community was way more expensive?

Low density communities cost a lot more to serve with bus. It’s not just that the bus has to travel longer distances from job centers and key destinations to your community. It’s mostly that transit users typically walk to their stop and wait for service. The potential ridership “market” for a bus stop are all of the people that live within a walkable radius of that stop (about 0.25 to 0.4 miles).

If very few people live within that walkable radius, the ridership is low for those service hours. If you live in a residential neighborhood that predominantly consists of single-family homes with car garages, your bus stops won’t generate as much ridership as a residential community with a mix of single family, abundant duplexes, and many apartments. And if your neighborhood is not dense, there’s a chance its sidewalk grid is winding or non-existent, making matters even worse.

bus-density-grids

Which of the 3 routes would get your transit operating dollars? Black dots are people. Blue lines are sidewalks. Dashes are routes. Each “X” is a stop.

Some folks are surprised by this, but in Texas there are actually quite limited transit operating funds. They are a transit agencies most precious financial resource.

In metro Austin, the overwhelming bulk of operating dollars comes from a 1% sales tax within the municipalities that participate in CapMetro. There’s also fares and some operating federal grants and…that’s pretty much it. The sources and uses of CapMetro revenue are pie-charted below.

cmta-sources-uses

That’s why the Board and staff at CapMetro tend to be reluctant to allocate too much operating funding to low ridership services.  There are some exceptions. The main one is the disastrous amounts of operating budget consumed by the commuter rail Red Line service. The average subsidy for a bus trip is about $4. For the Red Line, it’s $18.

“Why do you keep talking about ‘operating’ dollars? We seem to be passing bond referendums and big budgets all the time. Why not shift some of that money?”

Bond referendums are usually one-time capital projects (e.g. buildings, roads, expensive equipment). The public needs a big chunk of money up front to get the project done and therefore pays interest to lenders to get that big chunk.

Using bonds to pay for ongoing expenses (such as bus drivers’ salaries) would be an extremely expensive way of financing bus services. We would basically be paying interest for 20 years for one year of salary. It’s why the ratings agencies that evaluate public sector creditworthiness aggressively downgrade governments that use bond funds for ongoing operational expenses.

As for the operating budgets of public entities like the City and County, there’s little room for any significant diversion to transit. Both the City and County’s budgets are driven by a need to provide public safety (police, jails, fire, EMS) services that are fairly tied to population growth and typically feature labor contracts with annual raises.

“Fine. So, what can I do to get service sooner?”

One option is to flex political muscle and get your service, even if it is inefficient and hurts overall ridership. This hurts people, but our local political institutions are certainly responsive to “squeaky wheels”.

A better option is to promote pockets of transit-supportive density, especially in your community. You should also encourage the City Council and County Commissioners appoint representatives to CapMetro that are assertive in prioritizing low per-rider subsidies. Once your community has a competitive level of density to generate good ridership, you’ll have the moral authority and the math to back up your request for additional service.

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