By Barb Thoman, Executive Director, and Michael Petesch, Nonmotorized Transportation Research and Evaluation Specialist
Transit for Livable Communities has just updated a policy brief on transit passenger fares from peer regions across the country, and we found that there’s good news and bad news about transit fares in the Twin Cities.
Fares & Service
In years past, when state-allocated revenues to transit declined, Twin Cities transit fares were increased several times until they were higher than many other places. The good news today, though, is that our transit fares have not risen since 2008. During the same period, fares in many other regions have increased, making transit fares in the Twin Cities metro about average compared to our peers.
Nevertheless, while many regions have fares comparable to the Twin Cities, those regions also have more extensive systems, meaning transit fares in those regions buy access to more frequent service on more routes.
Passes & Programs
In the Twin Cities, the cost of a monthly transit pass ranges from $59 to ride local service off-peak, $85 for local service during peak hours, or $113.50 for peak express service. This makes our average monthly pass slightly more expensive than in peer regions, and more than many residents who are looking for work or in low-wage jobs can afford. Metro Transit and many regional businesses and schools have done an admirable job in providing lower fares for their employees and students through the Metropass, UPass, College Pass, and Student Pass programs, but not everyone is eligible for those programs.
In fact, suburban riders tend to get some of the largest fare discounts, not to mention free parking at park-and-ride lots, while riders of urban bus routes tend to have smaller fare discounts and fewer transit amenities such as heated shelters. There is a real opportunity to address this equity imbalance. This might mean charging for parking at park-and-rides (something TLC supports) or it might mean creating new fare discount programs for low-income riders.
When it comes to transfers, our region offers a unique benefit. A transit rider here is allowed unlimited free transfers for 2 hours and 30 minutes and the transfer is good for round-trip travel. Many regions charge for transfers or limit the time period for a transfer to only two hours. Only one-third of regions allow a transfer to be used for round-trip travel. Metro Transit’s 2.5-hour transfer with round-trip travel was instituted in 1998. The idea came from Brian Lamb, the agency’s current general manager.
The percentage of transit operating costs paid by riders in the Twin Cities
metro is slightly above the average in peer regions. Photo: TLC.
This year, TLC also added information on farebox recovery rates to our analysis. Farebox recovery is the percentage of the transit budget that is covered by passenger fares. The most current data from the Federal Transit Administration show that transit fares in the Twin Cities region cover 29 percent of transit expenses—somewhat more than the average of 25 percent for the 20 peer regions. The lowest farebox recovery ratio was in Dallas at 10 percent and the highest was in Washington DC at 46 percent.
Farebox recovery is a useful data point in comparing routes and metro-wide transit systems. At the same time, it is critical to note that the public investment in transit provides huge benefits for individuals, organizations, businesses, and entire communities. It is also important to recognize that the full costs of roads and parking are not paid directly by drivers. The cost of local roads and parking are heavily subsidized by property taxes.
While transit fares in this region are comparable with those in other regions, the bad news is that for many residents, including many that are most reliant on transit to get around, the cost of the fare is still a barrier to riding buses and trains and limits the access to opportunity that transit can provide. TLC believes that lower fares for riders in need, and more equitable fares, would make transit service more attractive and would increase access to opportunity for many people in the region with low incomes.
At the same time, we know that without more funding for transit operations, other parts of the transit budget would likely be cut to lower fares. That is why TLC believes the region needs more funding for the transit system overall. And that’s why we are a leader in the Move MN campaign. Additional funding is needed not only to expand local and express bus service, and build more light rail and bus rapid transit lines, but also to keep fares affordable, to provide fare discounts for low-income riders, to provide better customer amenities, and to create bicycle and pedestrian connections to transit in neighborhoods across the region.
Notes: Transit fare data is from agency web sites. Farebox recovery ratios are from 2012.