Paying for 'Free' Transit

Olsen, Dave

Publisher:  The Tyee
Date Written:  13/07/2007
Year Published:  2007  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20498

Olsen discusses the politics surrounding funding options for transit systems outside of passenger fare to support a fare-free system and proposes shifting spending costs towards avenues that favour riders and transit needs rather than corporate needs, in order to improve service.



Since we are now discussing priorities, let's address the big question most people have when asked to ponder switching to a fare-free transit system. Namely: sounds good, but how do we pay for it?

As we have seen, in Hasselt, Belgium, people actually enjoy giving one per cent of their municipal taxes to transit. But only because their transit service is free to use, very frequent, and saves people significant amounts of money overall.

In Island County in the state of Washington, people pay for their "free" ride on the bus whenever they buy locally. Of their 8.3 per cent sales tax, 6.5 per cent is for the state (like our PST) and 0.6 of one per cent goes to fund their beautiful and friendly, fare-free bus services. That works out to 60¢ for every $100 spent in Island County.

Could a region as large as Vancouver's afford such a bold approach, though? Well, in Seattle and surrounding King County, voters recently approved a sales tax initiative that increased their local sales tax from .8 per cent to .9 per cent. This is similar to Island County's tax ratio for transit. For every $100 people spend in King County, 90¢ is collected for the transit system. According to Jill Krecklow , finance and administrative services manager for King County Metro Transit, the projected annual sales tax in 2008 is $456 million US (or $528 million Canadian), which alone is more than five per cent higher than TransLink's current transit operating budget.

TransLink has created pass programs that mimic these fare-free systems for the lucky folks that have access to them. The U-Pass at UBC costs $22 per month, the U-Pass at SFU costs $24.50/month and the Community Pass at SFU (for half of the condo owners) costs $28/month. (If all of the condo owners were included, it would only cost $14/month.) These passes offer unlimited rides throughout the entire system, just like a fare-free transit system would. And everyone who is part of these communities must buy them, guaranteeing TransLink a monthly income.

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