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A smarter way to do mass transit

Opinion Editorial
March 14, 2004

By Jon Caldara, for the Boulder Daily Camera

The first tastes of freedom often come in very tiny bites. And a little, and I do mean a little, sliver of freedom has found its way to Colfax Avenue in Denver.

Toure David and Modest Kouame came to America a decade ago. When it took them an hour and 20 minutes to get to where they were going by bus, compared to 40 minutes by car, they knew their business would succeed. And they are gambling their entire life savings on it.

They have started “City Dollar Ride,” Denver’s first competition to RTD. Not that a handful of vans is any serious threat to one of the largest governments in the state (yet), but the movement it could start might be.

Their goal is just to give working people in their community mobility. As Toure says, “This is a service for the people who are tired of being at the mercy of the bus people who are in a hurry to get somewhere.”

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has just approved their dinky little business. It will run a handful of 15 passenger vans from Aurora to Denver along Colfax for a mere dollar fare. RTD charges 25 percent more, doesn’t pay taxes on fuel or vehicles, and still loses money.

All of the bus routes that RTD operates do so at a financial loss. No RTD bus route makes money from fares. It’s just that some routes, like the one on Colfax, lose less than others.

RTD is around 80-percent government subsidized. That includes tax money for both operations and capital. So when you put your buck and a quarter in the fare box, you are only paying 20 percent of what it really costs.

Now along Colfax, where RTD loses money by charging a $1.25 fare, two black immigrants from Ivory Coast will make a profit providing faster service for only a buck.

For that buck Toure and Modest will pick you up along the route, zip past the lumbering RTD buses, just like you do in your car, and let you off where you want, not just at a bus stop. Some call it a jitney.

RTD didn’t try to stop the PUC approval of “City Dollar Ride” because it poses little threat to them. RTD knows that jitneys can’t expand very far from the poorest areas of downtown. Why? It’s because of the high ridership of the Colfax route, and the fact that more folks there pay with cash.

The Boulder to Denver run (arguably the best regional bus route in the nation) is also one of RTD’s least money-losing routes. But more riders use passes instead of cash. They can’t use those passes on private transit yet.

Which comes to a basic policy question over the best use of transit’s massive subsidy. Who should get it? When government started the takeover of faltering private bus companies in the late ’60s, its promise was to ensure that transit dependents had mobility.

Now that enormous subsidy has shifted to yuppies, who have cars in the garage but like to ride transit. These are people who could pay closer to full fare, but like all of us, would rather not.

We don’t give yuppies food stamps or welfare. Why do we give them an 80-percent break on buses and trolleys? Many say to fight congestion, but with only 2 percent of daily commutes on transit, it makes little difference.
The real cost of giving that massive subsidy to people who could pay the true cost (yeah, I’m talking to you), is that fewer transit dependents get the mobility they need.

The long-term answer (and yes I know it is politically impossible today, just like education vouchers were impossible 10 years ago) is to create a food-stamp program for transit. The beauty of food stamps is that they empower a poor person to make choices as if she had money.

If a transit dependent could get a voucher to be used on public transit, private transit, jitneys like “City Dollar Ride,” carpools for profit, even taxis, she could taste the freedom you likely have now.

Even if the regulatory barriers to competition with RTD’s monopoly and the taxi companies’ cartel came down, choice in transit will never flourish if the subsidy is controlled by the government and not the end users.

Move that subsidy, via a smart card accepted on public and private transit, to those who need it, bring the monopoly’s fares closer to the true cost, and see real choice.