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Should St. Louis Make Mass Transit Free?

11:14 AM EDT on April 6, 2009

346519139_4af4e316de_m.jpgPhoto by klabusta via Flickr.

Like so many systems around the country, St. Louis's Metro is facing a devastating budget crisis. And yet St. Louis Urban Workshop, one of the newer members of the Streetsblog Network, is adding its voice to a highly counterintuitive chorus of people who are calling not for fare increases to help fund the systems -- but for eliminating the farebox altogether. Some have suggested that free mass transit be seen as a stimulus measure. Even MarketWatch, part of the Wall Street Journal's digital network, has run an editorial in favor of making mass transit free, saying, "This is not as far-fetched as it looks."

So how would St. Louis replace the 20 percent of revenues the system gets from fares? here's what St. Louis Urban Workshop suggests:

The region could charge employers (businesses, government offices, universities, co-ops, etc.) $1 per employee every day that he or she travels to the workplace. This works out to a one-time "wage increase" of 12.5¢ per hour. That's not very much. If regional employers would commit to mass transit in the mode of Washington University and fully subsidize employee travel we would be there.

The region could also implement a 1% sales tax to fund mass transit. We couldredistribute spending on roads. We could also end the wasteful use of TIF for retail development, a practice that distorts commercial development and produces zero net gain for the St. Louis MSA (report here).We should also ensure that the system is useful and require retail developments to make accommodations for mass transit (bus turnaround/stop, walking connections to Metrolink, etc.) or pay a fee to build accommodations elsewhere.

Free-transit plans have come up before in New York and other places. Is there any real prospect of their implementation? 

Elsewhere around the network, the National Journal opens a thread on what role public-private partnerships might play in the future of the American transportation system; Twin Cities Streets for People reports on a drop in crime near a new greenway in Minneapolis; and Trains for America digs into the reasons for an improvement in Amtrak's on-time performance.

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