If we build mass transit, they won’t necessarily come

Leon Drolet

Mass transit use is declining across America despite substantial tax increases intended to prop up buses, light rail and trolleys. According to the American Public Transportation Association, mass transit use has declined in 24 of 30 major U.S. cities since 2014. Metro Detroit is experiencing this national trend. In 2014, Macomb County voters approved a 65 percent increase in the property tax subsidizing the SMART bus system - and SMART ridership declined by more than 7 percent from 2013 to 2016 according to Michigan Department of Transportation data. SMART anticipates even fewer riders this year, according to their 2018 budget.

Traditional mass transit's failure to attract riders despite substantial increases in subsidies is illustrated by Los Angeles. That city voted to hike mass transit taxes twice since 2008, only to see ridership decline by almost 20 percent since.

Why the decline in traditional mass transit use? Some experts speculate the emergence of ride share services like Uber and Lyft play a role. Others believe the improving economy and low gas prices have allowed more people to afford cars. But those reasons are part of an overriding reason: traditional mass transit is slow, inconvenient, impersonal, and a dismal experience compared to alternatives. Using most mass transit is like using public bathrooms: people only do it when there is no other choice.

Who wants to walk to a bus stop, wait around in weather, then sit through countless other bus stops before finally being dropped off blocks from their destination? Compare that experience to sharing an Uber that picks riders up at home and delivers them to their destination's front door.

The future is bleak for old school, lumbering buses because technology is expected to deliver even better shared transit in the near future. Driverless cars may soon allow those who can't drive (or don't want to) to summon an automated vehicle to their home.

Metro Detroiters dodged a bullet by rejecting the Regional Transit Authority tax increase proposal in 2016. That proposal would have taken $4.2 billion from citizens and poured it into fading transit like buses, light rail, and the QLine trolley in Detroit. We would've been on the hook for 20 years supporting mass transit that is dying and, like Los Angeles discovered, likely seen little return on those tax dollars.

RTA bureaucrats and other traditional mass transit advocates are working to place a new RTA tax increase proposal on the 2018 ballot. Those efforts are cheered by businessman Dan Gilbert and other wealthy folks who used their private resources (and some subsidies) to build Detroit's QLine trolley. But the QLine only travels about 3 miles, is inaccessible to the vast majority of Detroit neighborhoods, and is slower than a bicycle. Gilbert and fellow QLine investors would benefit by offloading the QLine's financial burden onto taxpayers so, like the People Mover, low ridership and financial losses will be shouldered by others.

RTA proponents argue that mass transit inadequacies played a major role in Amazon's recent decision to exclude Detroit from consideration for their second headquarters. Yet of the 20 cities selected as finalists for Amazon's investment, several (Columbus, Nashville, Raleigh, Indianapolis) provide little traditional mass transit.

Falling mass transit ridership demonstrates that "if you subsidize it, they still won't come" - especially if transit consists of inconvenient buses, light rail and gimmicky trolleys. The future of mass transit lies in ride sharing, driverless cars, and other market-based innovation that people actually want to use. It would be far better to shift existing mass transit subsidies to support new transit cards that allow low-income, senior, and handicapped citizens to select transit of their choice - either traditional buses or Uber, Lyft, ride shares and other future options.

Even without additional taxes, Metro Detroit taxpayers will pay $7 billion over the next 20 years in mass transit taxes - over $4,250 per household - through gas taxes, vehicle registration fees and existing property taxes. If citizens are taxed for transit, that money should be spent on transit people actually use - including fixing our rapidly deteriorating roads and providing choice to citizens who can't drive through subsidized transit cards.

Old habits die hard, and that is especially true for government central planners. Let's hope the RTA fails in their efforts to prop up the past. We can save taxpayer money, improve transit for those in need through technology and consumer choice, and use the savings to fix our roads.

Leon Drolet is a Macomb County Commissioner, chair of Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, and Treasurer of NoMassiveTransitTax.org.