Higgins: UnsustainableWritten by Tim Higgins | | firstname.lastname@example.org
(to the tune of “Unforgettable” and with all due respect to songwriter Irving Gordon)
Unsustainable, that’s what you are/
Unsustainable, routes near and far/
A mode of travel that gets me there/
Your business plan gives me a scare/
It’s sad but true, you’ve not a clue.
Unsustainable in every way/
And forever more, that’s how you’ll stay/
I find it unexplainable/
That something so unsustainable/
Thinks more taxpayer cash is obtainable, too.
Public transportation is how I make my daily commute these days, something that you might likewise do if, like other Kansas residents, you found yourself paying property tax on your automobile every year before obtaining license plates for more private transportation. So while some might applaud my “green effort,” understand that the only green that I’m concerned about is that of the money I save by riding a bus.
The transit system that I participate in offers monthly passes with unlimited rides for the bargain rate of $69. Although the system’s operating hours are confined to a simple first shift weekday working schedule, the fee is far less than I would spend for a car payment, insurance or even gasoline for the same period, let alone all three combined.
Like many public transportation systems around the nation however (and other local programs in general), the one I use faces reductions in funding provided by local governments, with more sure to come. One-time grants from state and federal levels are over and drying up, and the absence of such cash infusions leaves it without the requisite funding to support previous expansions.
With proper due diligence, “The Jo” as the system is called, announced public meetings to report the results of its careful budget studies to find ways to function within its fiscal limitations (I know — who knew such a thing was possible?) and to obtain public comment on proposed route eliminations and cutbacks. Being a concerned rider (and with the meeting a block away), I decided to forgo my distaste for such forums and attend.
Much of what I heard was to be expected, as some very caring, compassionate, and dedicated system employees patiently listened to stories about the lives that these cutbacks would affect. The groups mentioned were also expected: the handicapped, the aged, disabled veterans and women who’ve escaped abusive relationships were among them; mixed with rambling tales of someone who knew someone who counted on each and every route. The stories were many times pathetic and heart-rending, often eloquent and moving, and occasionally little more than base and self-serving.
“The Jo” representatives were however, able to go into amazing budgetary detail on a per-route basis (shocking, I know), citing the number of riders, state funding grants for rural routes, federal support programs and fare intake levels. No one therefore, could argue the financial reality of the situation, or whether money was there to support routes that might now be eliminated; they simply argued that such elimination would cause hardship for themselves, someone they knew, or a group for which they were advocating. The only surprise was that these cutbacks were being made in spite of increasing ridership in the system, apparently belying the claims that more utilization is the solution.
There was even some discussion about new area businesses under construction and how cutbacks might affect them, which is where I at least began to see the glaring hole in their argument. For there was no mention about such businesses that had obtained lavish local tax breaks for their new operations being asked to contribute to a system that might well get employees to their new jobs. More importantly however, there was no discussion of increasing fares to existing riders to make up operating revenue losses.
As I had discovered during earlier investigation, since fares account for only 18 percent of this revenue; no realistic fare increase could hope to bridge such gaps. The carefully laid-out plans of an apparently well-educated and dedicated staff therefore did not include any alternatives that raised fares above their more-than-affordable levels in order to save even one of the cutbacks proposed. Apparently these managers had become so focused on and addicted to the public trough, that such consideration had been rejected out of hand in favor of instead putting additional pressure on local officials for greater taxpayer support.
At a time when households are being asked to accept annual double digit increases in water and sewer rates to pay for an infrastructure in disrepair, such an absence seems ludicrous. When property owners and residents alike are being barraged (even by some transportation systems) for increased taxpayer support for parks, schools and museums whether they use them or not, not asking those using a largely taxpayer-funded system to give more for the inexpensive service they enjoy seemed counterintuitive. For any business to expect to operate with what could only laughingly be called a plan in which less than 20 percent of their operating costs are covered by what they charge for their service is worse than irresponsible; it’s unsustainable.