Rising gas prices may force people to rethink their morning and evening commute. With gas prices approaching $4 nationally and $3.60/gallon in Minnesota (up $0.11 from 1 week ago and up $0.80 from 1 year ago) the switch to public transit may become a viable option for thousands of commuters. A report from the American Public Transportation Association cites $4/gallon gas could result in an additional 670 million public transportation trips, and if prices jump to $5/gallon the report predicts an additional 1.5 billion possible trips. The potential for millions of additional public transportation trips is great news for transit advocates who have long supported the switch from automobiles to transit, but with state budget deficits in the ten’s of millions this increase in fuel prices could sound trouble to overall transportation funding in the State of Minnesota.
Transportation bills in both Minnesota and Wisconsin call for general fund cuts to public transportation, removing the ability of regional transit (rail) authorities to levy property taxes to support transit projects, and prohibit states and local governments from applying for or accepting federal money for rail projects. In Minnesota, if House Transportation Bill 1140 is passed (among the cuts listed above) it would result in cutting operational transit funding by 20% and Southwest LRT (scheduled to open in 2017) would lose its place in line for federal funding by another decade. The underlying reason for discussing these proposed cuts to transportation is that none of them include or acknowledge the increases local/regional transportation authorities are facing with escalating gas and diesel prices.
Metropolitan Chair Susan Haige, in a letter to legislative leaders emphasized how detrimental these cuts would be to transit service in the Metropolitan area. The proposed cuts, among other things, would raise fares by $4, cut over 500 jobs, and result in 22 million fewer rides. The shocking part comes when Chair Haige states, “As the largest consumer of diesel fuel in our state, using 7.6 million gallons annually, a $0.10 increase in fuel has had a $760,000 impact on our system. Because of this, we have to make an $11 million adjustment for fuel alone”. If prices continue to increase, and the proposed $120 million cut to transportation from the general fund becomes reality, the Metropolitan Council will be forced to decrease the quality of their service or dramatically increase the cost of it.
The question beckons, should service be decreased to keep costs low, or should taxes/fees increase to keep the same level of demand? As long as gas prices remain historically high, the need for public transportation won’t subside. Those choosing to switch to public transportation will expect a certain level of service given the government’s role in running and operating the regional transit system (the thought, “I pay taxes therefore I deserve the best service). With regional incomes remaining flat (if not decreasing), fuel costs rising, and transit funding uncertain, the outlook on how transit service will be delivered is very much up in the air.