Facts show public transit is not underfunded

February 7, 2012

Erica Barnett from Publicola, who ignored the release of my original report until the Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) responded to it, plugs the TCC rebuttal in her own post. Despite the obvious mistakes made by TCC, she buys their rebuttal, and adds a few of her own.

The facts continue to show public transit is not underfunded in Washington State.

Barnett & TCC:
First, the approximately $2 billion the state’s 31 transit agencies collect (mostly in sales tax) is a mere fraction of the more than $9 billion the state spends on its transportation budget. “Ennis is cherry picking just state gas tax and fees to make his number, while comparing it to the totality of all sources of revenue for transit including federal, local and all other sources.”

To give context to how much transit’s $2 billion in annual revenue is, my report compares it to the three primary revenue categories of the state’s transportation budget also from 2010 ($2.09 billion). These three categories are taxes, fees and miscellaneous, and they represent about 60% of the revenue that funds the transportation budget. On the other hand, TCC and Barnett make an apples to oranges comparison by using the total transportation budget ($9 billion) over two years (not one) and in a different time frame (2011-2013).

Barnett & TCC:
Second, TCC says, the WPC’s “only 2.4 percent of all trips” claim is extrapolated from the number of trips taken by transit locally and the number of total trips the “average” American household takes. The “average” US household, of course, takes far more trips by car than the average household in a large, urbanized area like Seattle; in fact, 40 percent of people who commute to downtown Seattle ride the bus.

Again, to give context to how small public transit is in relation to the state’s overall transportation system, my report estimates total person-trip-demand, then compares it to total transit trip demand. This is a completely legitimate comparison and this is the methodology I used:

In 2010, the 31 public transit agencies provided 212 million passenger trips, or about 582,000 trips per day. The federal government estimates households typically perform an average of 9.5 person trips per day. Washington state has 2.51 million households, which translates to an estimated 24 million person trips per day across the state. This means the 31 public transit agencies’ total market share is only about 2.4% of all daily person trip demand.

TCC and Barnett want to cherry pick their own numbers by isolating only commuting trips only in Seattle. Doing this only represents a fraction of the total person-trip-demand across the state and grossly overestimates transit’s actual mode share, which remains under 3%. Incidentally, the Puget Sound Regional Council also estimates regional mode share for transit is about 3% and in fact PSRC officials go further in their Transportation 2040 plan to show transit mode share will only increase to about 5%, despite spending billions more on transit expansion.

Barnett & TCC:
Finally, sales tax is volatile—just ask any of the regional transit agencies, like Community Transit (or Federal Way) that have had to reduce or postpone service because of shortfalls in sales-tax revenues. Between 2008 and 2010, local sales tax collections dropped 11.6 percent statewide. Moreover, WPC’s report ignores the fact that the value of money decreases over time, comparing 2001 dollars directly to 2010 dollars and ignoring the existence of inflation.

Again, Barnett and TCC want to cherry pick just a few regional transit agencies and claim their sales tax revenue has declined and therefore we should charge drivers across the entire state to fund all of them with higher transportation taxes and fees.

In 2010, the 31 public transit agencies collected $1.23 billion in sales taxes. The state collected about $1.21 billion in gas taxes in 2010. This means public transit agencies collected more in sales tax revenue than the entire state collected in gas tax revenue. In fact, public transit’s sales tax revenue has grown 150% in the last ten years, from $484 million in 2001 to $1.23 billion in 2010.

Barnett also claims I did not take inflation into account. Obviously, she did not read my report where I wrote: “Inflation over the same time period only accounts for 23% of this growth. This means sales tax revenue for public transit agencies in Washington state has grown about 6.5 times faster than inflation over the last decade.”

Washington Policy Center supports public transit, especially to serve people with disabilities or those living in dense urban areas. But creating a state level funding source by raising taxes and fees paid by drivers to subsidize other travel modes is unfair and siphons away revenue that should instead fund roads to reduce traffic congestion and improve safety. This is especially true when you consider public transit funding is already more than $2 billion per year but only serves 2.4% of all trips.

All transportation taxes and fees paid by drivers should be used for highway purposes only. That is only fair.  Alternative travel modes should be funded by their own users (which reduces the public subsidy) or through local options that apply to the general public, like sales taxes.

Read the full study here:


you're missing some important factors

Comparing CPI (or whatever measure you used for inflation) is only the beginning. Sales tax revenue from sales taxes isn't only a function of price, it's also a function of the number of sales (which is itself a function of population and equality/wealth, because even rich people only buy so many hats or iPads). You need to look at how sales tax revenue has grown versus productivity (gdp) and population too, in order to understand what is real growth in revenue, and what is simply being driven by demographic factors.