Cars’ FRR is often zero

Say you’re riding the #3 bus up Burnet Road. You pay 50 cents to get on the bus. That’s your “fare”. As it turns out, if you consider all the money taken in and all the money spent out by Capital Metro, and divide the difference equally per trip, it actually costs the taxpayers a couple of bucks for your ride. (The #3 bus, because ridership is high, ends up subsidizing some other routes, but we’re taking a simplistic view here). Your “farebox recovery ratio” is something like 20%.

Now say you’re driving your Ford Explorer down Lamar Blvd. As I’ve been recently discussing in the transportation funding topic, no gas tax money is spent on roads like this in Austin (basically major roads that don’t have a route shield on them).
Your “fare” for this trip is thus $0.00 (the road doesn’t have tollbooths, of course). In other words, the only cost you pay directly at the time (“user fee”) is the gas tax, but as noted, neither this road nor other major roads of this type in the city of Austin can be funded by gas tax dollars.

The cost of providing you with your rejuvenated driving surface was substantially more than zero (12.6 million dollars, including utility work), and all that cost was most recently paid by city of Austin taxpayers via property and sales taxes (bond election in ’98). And don’t fool yourself – most of the cost for projects like this isn’t for pedestrians, cyclists, or bus riders. We’d have a much smaller and much cheaper transportation network if nobody drove — the fact is that most of the money we spend on roads like this is directly attributable to people driving their cars, alone.

Your FRR on this trip is 0%. That’s right, a big fat zero. The only time Capital Metro gets this bad is on Ozone Action Days. So, libertarians, perhaps you shouldn’t throw stones from your suburban glass houses.

What about highways, you ask? Well, it’s true the majority of funds required to build state highways do, in fact, come from the gas tax. There are other, less direct, costs of these roadways which are borne by society at large, but even when considering just direct construction and maintenance cost, you still don’t get off claiming that you’re paying the bills. A substantial portion (largest line-items, as a matter of fact) of both the 1998 and 2000 bond elections for Austin and Travis County’s 2000 package were to pay “local contributions” towards right-of-way for new and expanded state highways. IE: even on a brand-new highway theoretically built with gas taxes, the property-owners and goods-buyers are still subsidizing you, whether they drive a lot, a little, or not at all.



7 thoughts on “Cars’ FRR is often zero

  1. This is a useful argument. Do you have any figures (or WAGs) on the total number of trips between major resurfacing projects? (Obviously this would vary depending on the road.) That, plus the cost of those projects, would get us closer to showing the level of subsidy for passenger cars.
    Also: when the city/county/state sells a bond for N dollars, that’s how much the city raises up-front, right? The eventual payoff with interest is, of course, much more. I don’t know how the city’s debt is structured, but as a f’rinstance, a 20-yr bond at 4% winds up costing more than double face value in nominal terms.

  2. Good comments – I’ll try to do a trial analysis of Lamar as an example sometime this week or next. (There are, at least, average daily traffic counts for roads like Lamar out there somewhere).
    I’m not sure whether the bond figure quoted is the ‘amount floated’ or the ‘amount repaid’ – good question.

  3. I think your comparison is inconsistent. 20% is the portion of the cost of a bus trip paid by the bus rider. The equivalent number in the car case would be the portion of the cost of a car trip paid by the driver. Given that the driver is paying for the vehicle and its gas, it’s likely 90% or higher.

  4. The purchase of the car is completely external to the equation of how much you are paying for use of a public facility (the road) and how much you are being subsidized. This is the key part–the use of a public facility.

  5. I think there’s something wrong with this analysis. The problem is that, to my understanding, the Farebox recovery ratio describes how much of the bus service is payed through the farebox. This includes the cost of new buses and the upkeep of old buses. In this case, I have to agree with Anon above because I don’t think the FRR is measuring what you want it to measure. The FRR has no reflection on the benefits riding the bus has on the cost of road repair. As far as I know, none of my bus fare is going towards local road construction (just as my gas taxes are not going to local road construction). I base this on the fact that Capital Metro receives money from the government. To get an accounting of the positive effect buses have on road condition, you would have to count how many cars are removed from the roadway by the bus, multiply that by the cost of the damage those cars would have caused, then subtract the cost of the damage the bus causes. Now, I am by no means an expert. In fact, I am barely familiar with this topic at all. If I am wrong, please educate me!

  6. Generally, if you are or are listening to a right-wing kind of guy, the conventional wisdom about transit is usually wrong.
    For instance, specifically in this case: yes, bus fare DOES pay for road construction/reconstruction/maintenance. For instance:
    1. Build Greater Austin money
    2. Diversion of 1/4 cent of Capital Metro’s funds to road projects
    Without #1, nearly zero new sidewalks would have been built in this town between about 1970 and 1998 on old roads. That’s infrastructure for everyone, whether or not they use the bus.
    Without #1 and #2, substantial chunks of road maintenance and reconstructions during that same time would not have occurred.
    Note also that the infrastructure required to support a mostly-bus-riding population would be far smaller than the one we need to support the mostly-single-occupant-vehicle-drivers of today. (IE: we wouldn’t have many arterials which were more than a lane each way). Attributing anything but the cost of bus pads to buses is therefore not reasonable.

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