The Roanoke Times, in an op-ed piece this morning, fell into the all-to-common trap of referring to the money spent on transit as a “subsidy” in the discussion of a recent Roanoke City Council candidate forum. This kind of thinking has got to stop.
The quote from the paper is as follows:
“[H]ere’s the inconvenient fact: Valley Metro loses money. The city subsidizes it each year to the tune of $1.8 million. Want more hours or longer routes? Great. How much will that cost and where will that money come from?”
While the overarching point is fair – it costs money to run transit, and so expansions need to be paid for somehow – the continued description of the public cost for transit as a “subsidy” is frustrating and misleading.
As we’ve discussed before, all aspects of transportation require public funding for construction and operation. Yet, you don’t hear the money VDOT spends on constructing road as “subsidy.” No one is wondering if the public subsidy for the new Valley View interchange on I-581 is worth it.
Using the word “subsidy” gives the impression that a particular enterprise should be surviving on its own, but for whatever reason can’t. It begs the question of whether the enterprise should be subsidized or not. Every time transit is described as being subsidized, it opens up opportunities to challenge its necessity.
The fact of the matter, though, is that transit generally covers 30% of its operating cost from farebox revenue. Roads? Unless you’re paying a toll, roads and highways recover 0% of their cost from revenue. Zero. Every dollar spent on a road comes out of the public purse and never goes back. Even worse, unlike transit – where if you increase ridership, revenue goes up – highways only cost more as traffic increases and maintenance costs increase (a problem we generally solve by…building more and wider highways, all at 100% public expense).
So, enough with this word “subsidy.” Public transportation is a fundamental part of our transportation network, all of which is funded by public money for the public good. Transit does not receive a subsidy any more than a highway does – we are simply making good investments.