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Sun Tran funding debate needs focus

Illustration by Holly Randall
By Ryan Johnson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, November 18, 2004
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This past week, Sun Tran, the public bus service that operates in Tucson, announced that ridership increased by 1.7 million over the past two years, putting it over the 15 million mark.

It attributed the rise to an increase in gas prices and immediately called for an increase in government funding to provide better service. It says it needs to offer new routes and operate later hours.

And thus the debate begins.

The call for more funding generates the typical libertarian response. If an activity needs a massive government subsidy just to exist, it is a waste of taxpayer dollars. We should be looking for ways to make bus service less dependent on the government, not more.

And from there, the debate goes to all hell. Of all issues in public policy, one that seems to always lack proper perspective is transportation.

Ryan Johnson

Passion? Oh no, it lacks none of that. On the contrary, once discussion of transportation starts, strong opinions emerge. Some love their cars. Some see them as a sign of American laziness and greed. Some wax nostalgic for trains and trolleys. Others bang their head on their steering wheel as they wait for a 200-car train to pass on their way home to Starr Pass.

Indeed, transportation plays a major role in our lives, so let's try to provide some context to the debate.

Shouldn't increased ridership automatically increase revenue, since each extra rider brings an extra dollar (the fare for a Sun Tran ride)? Not exactly. According to Amy Ramsee, director of marketing for Sun Tran, only 20 percent of the cost of operating a bus is recovered from the fare. The bulk of the cost is paid for by government subsidies. And more passengers mean more demand for extended access and hours, which easily eats up any increase in revenue.

Sun Tran's entire budget each year is currently $37 million. Without an increase in government funding, the main option left to SunTran - if it wants to increase service - is to increase ticket prices.

But it seems like ticket prices need to be low to draw customers away from cars. You see, bus service presents several disadvantages to cars. Because buses stop and travel slower, they take much more time compared to cars. They also don't offer the same comfort or accessibility. So even at 20 percent of the actual cost, passengers are still sensitive to price. After a price hike in 1997, ridership began a sharp five-year decline.

So fares must remain low, making subsidies a necessity. The only public bus system in the United States that actually pays for itself is the system that covers the Las Vegas strip. And really, how many areas can have hundreds of thousands of people in a small area that are rich enough, lucky enough or drunk enough to pay the $2-plus fare for a ride from one casino to the next?

So the pendulum swings back to a libertarian perspective. If there's no hope of a transportation system paying for itself, why should we have it? It's a good point, but it doesn't point out the implicit subsidies given to drivers of cars.

Car drivers don't have to pay for the pollution they cause, the congestion on the road that they add to or the cost of emergency services. Of course, neither do bus riders, but if a bus can take people off the road, the savings in terms of societal costs and benefits should be factored into the equation of whether bus service is worth it. Fifteen million passengers? If the bus service stopped that'd be one expensive strain on roads and the air.

So thus finally a goal in terms of how we should improve Sun Tran emerges. Choose services that get cars off the road, and choose services that encourage people to live closer to the city center and stop sprawling.

So we should add an extra hour of service downtown before we add another route to Oro Valley. Don't increase funding just because ridership went up. Increase funding only if it's an opportunity to have a total social benefit higher than the cost of funding.

Is there hope for the future in terms of making public transportation more affordable for governments? Absolutely. For one, the salary of bus drivers currently represents well over half the cost of operating the bus. If we can have an automated bus driver ...

But until then, let's agree to just approach the issue in the right way.

Ryan Johnson is an economics and international studies junior. He can be reached at

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