Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Flawed Transportation Policies Hit Home

By Marc Korman.

I have spent the past year and a half riding the DC Metro and MARC Train from Bethesda to Baltimore for school each day. I always knew the cost was slightly higher than driving, but there were other benefits to transit: riding helped me justify living so far from school, gave me time to read and nap, and made me think Al Gore would like me. Unfortunately, due to our state and nation’s flawed transportation policies I am now commuting in my car on a daily basis.

I have written before about the need to improve the MARC Train and the reasons we should increase the gas tax. Unfortunately, both MARC Train service and gas prices have moved in the opposite direction from what I have proposed. Instead of following through on a plan to expand and upgrade MARC service, the commuter rail has maintained inflexible policies, reduced service, and increased ridership costs. Instead of increasing the gas tax, or pegging it to inflation, or setting a flexible tax so that the price of gas is always above a certain level, prices have been allowed to drop and a major incentive for mass transit expansion and alternative energy development has faded.

In the case of Maryland’s commuter rail, the Maryland Transit Administration has just instituted cuts. Among them was the elimination of the ten trip pass. A one way trip to get from Union Station in DC to Camden Yards in Baltimore costs $7.00. With the ten trip pass, the cost broke down to $5.60. As a result of the cuts, my daily commute on MARC went up by $1.40 each way and $2.80 roundtrip.

Taking the MARC train also required a $2.90 metro ride in each direction, so my total cost to take transit last year was $17.00/day. Now, it would be $19.80/day.

The benefit to the ten trip pass, as opposed to other bulk passes MTA offers like the weekly and monthly pass, is flexibility of use. Weekly and monthly passes can only be used for a short period of time, so if for some reason a rider does not need to take MARC one day (for example, they have to stay at school or work later than any trains run or they have avoided Friday classes) they lose a use of the pass they cannot recover. There are far less limitations with a ten trip pass.

This is not the only inflexible MTA policy that increases my costs. For example, MTA offers a student discount, but only if you purchase a special benefits card. Even then, you must go to a MARC train ticket office to make the purchase and cannot use the much more convenient electronic kiosks.

Another cut MTA made is to service on some of the lines. This did not affect the Camden line that I would take, but it counters the long growth plan for MARC which is to make service more, not less, regular. In my case, my current schedule makes MARC’s limited schedule extremely inconvenient.

A slight increase in the cost and inconvenience of transit would not be enough to chase me off the train. But the plummet in gas prices combined with those factors has done the job. A year ago, the Energy Information Agency indicated that a regular gallon of gasoline in the mid-Atlantic costs $3.11. Now, it costs $1.81/gallon. My 2003 Acura RSX gets 24 miles per gallon. A year ago, it would cost me $10.10/day in gas costs to get to Baltimore. Now, that cost has plummeted to $5.88/day. I also have to pay a $4.00 daily parking fee, so driving a year ago cost $14.10/day total and now costs $9.88/day, though this excludes wear and tear costs on my car.

Given these facts, a year ago I was paying a not insignificant, but manageable, $2.90/day surcharge to reduce traffic and greenhouse gas emissions. Today, the surcharge would be $9.92/day. I cannot justify the increased costs and inconvenience, so I am back in my car, causing traffic, emitting greenhouse gases, and yelling at the radio. Sensible transportation policies would get me, and many others, on mass transit where we belong.

January 2008 Transit
Metro: $2.90/trip
MARC Train 10 Trip Ticket: $56.00, $5.60/trip
Total Daily Cost: $17.00

January 2009 Transit
Metro: $2.90 a trip
MARC Train: $7.00 a trip (10 trip ticket eliminated)
Total Daily Cost=$19.80

January 2008 Driving:
Length of Trip: 39 miles each way
Gas Mileage: 24 mpg
Gas Costs: $3.11/gallon
Parking Costs: $4.00
Total Daily Cost: $14.10/day (not including wear and tear)

January 2009 Driving
Length of Trip: 39 miles each way
Gas Mileage: 24 mpg
Gas Costs: $1.81/gallon
Parking: $4.00
Total Daily Costs: $9.88

January 2008 Transit/Driving Difference: $2.90
January 2009 Transit/Driving Difference: $9.92