State Joint Transportation Committee studies whether public transit is underfunded

August 10, 2012

During the legislative session and in response to our publication, Roadmap for Mobility, lawmakers funded a study to determine the financial health of public transit agencies.

Transit officials claim they don't have enough money and lobbyist are quietly pushing Olympia to create a state level funding source. In Roadmap for Mobility, we looked at the data and found that public transit is not underfunded in Washington state.

There are 31 public transit agencies in Washington and they collected $2.05 billion in total revenues in 2010. To put this in perspective, the state only collected about half as much in total gas taxes in 2010. In the last five years alone, public transit has collected a whopping $12.6 billion! And this is remarkable when you consider that so-called “mass” transit only carries about 2.4% of all daily person trip demand statewide.

Obviously, the transit lobby disagrees so the legislature funded a study to take a closer look:

During the 2012 legislative discussion of the need for additional funding sources for public transportation, questions were raised about existing transit funding, and reserves currently held by transit agencies. To inform future discussions, ESHB 2190, the 2012 Supplemental Transportation Budget, directed the JTC to evaluate the fiscal health of public transportation in Washington and make a comparison to the fiscal health of state transportation funding.

Over at Transportation Issues Daily, Larry Ehl covered a Q/A on this topic earlier this year with myself and CEO of Spokane Transit and Chair of the Washington State Transit Association, Susan Meyer. This point-counterpoint format provides a good and quick summary on the issue.

Point-Counterpoint – No Need for More Transit Funding in Wash. State (Part 1)

Point-Counterpoint – No Need for More Transit Funding in Wash. State (Part 2)

It should also be highlighted that any new state level funding source would likely be paid by a single user group: drivers. Drivers have their own infrastructure needs, which are currently not being met. All transportation taxes and fees paid by drivers should be used for highway purposes only, while alternative travel modes should be funded by their own users (which reduces the public subsidy) or through local-option taxes that apply to the general public, like sales taxes.

Transit officials like to claim that transit ridership provides an indirect benefit to drivers because it gets cars off the road. But public transit does not serve enough trip demand (2.4%) to really make a difference to drivers. And when drivers have unfunded road needs, trading a direct benefit (road funding) for an indirect benefit (transit funding) is really no benefit at all and puts drivers in a worse position.  

The Joint Transportation Committee study is due to be released in December.