Mass Transit as the Newest Entitlement

by James A. Bacon

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has proposed eliminating all transit fares, and in a sign of how far left the City of Richmond’s political center of gravity has moved, his two main competitors in the mayoral race, Kim Gray and Alexsis Rodgers, support the idea.

The city suspended fares during the COVID-19 epidemic, which has coincided with a 20% ridership decline for the GRTC (Greater Richmond Transit Company). Stoney endorsed making the fare cuts permanent as he unveiled a new “equity office” in the Department of Public Works, which will also oversee initiatives relating to pedestrian safety, bike lane development, and transit planning.

Rodgers, who is running as a progressive, criticized Stoney, in effect asking what took him so long. Gray, the most centrist of the candidates, said she supports the free-transit model but added the caveat that she didn’t want to raise taxes or make cuts to other services to achieve it. “At some point,’she said, “this will require a budgetary reckoning.”

A likely source of funds to replace the fares could be the city’s share of revenue from a newly enacted 0.7% increase in the sales tax and a 7.6-cent increase on wholesale gas in the region. Those funds will be dispensed by the newly created Central Virginia Transportation Authority. After providing for administrative overhead, 15% of the authority’s revenue will be dedicated, by statute, to the GRTC “to provide transit and mobility services’ in the planning district. Another 50% will be returned to localities to “improve local mobility,” which may  include roads, sidewalks, trails, mobility services or transit.

If the City of Richmond uses regional tax revenues to pay for the free-fare initiative, it may not have to use city revenues to make up for the loss of the $7.1 million in fiscal 2020 fare revenue that had been predicted last year. According to the forecast in the GRTC annual report, fare-box revenues would account for about 21% of revenue from all sources, including city, state, and federal subsidies, $33.8 million in all.

Bacon’s bottom line: In effect, Stoney wants to create a new transportation entitlement. Whether the money comes from regional or local tax dollars, his proposal would represent another transfer of wealth from middle-class Virginia taxpayers to the poor. But it won’t be a well-targeted transfer: The entitlement would benefit not only lower-income riders, who comprise roughly half of GRTC ridership, but all GRTC riders regardless of income.

But there’s a larger issue here, and most people fail to see the forest for the trees. Progressives are turning every Virginia institution touched by government into  a vehicle for wealth redistribution. In health care, privately insured patients subsidize Medicaid and Medicare patients. In K-12, wealthy localities subsidize poor localities, and state taxpayers allocate special funds to poor schools. In higher education, universities raise the sticker price on tuition to help pay for discounts and financial aid for lower-income students. This year, the General Assembly is writing wealth redistribution into Virginia’s electricity rate structure. Now, in Central Virginia at least, mass transit likely will become another tool for taking from the middle class and giving to the poor.

Once enacted, most of these changes become invisible and permanent. It’s not as if anyone is keeping track of the most of this wealth redistribution. We can see what the state state budgets for Medicaid. There’s a big fat line item that legislators can decide to increase or decrease. Otherwise, most wealth-transfer schemes cause a brief stir when enacted, then pass out of the legislative domain and are never reviewed.

Middle-class Virginians know life is getting harder, but they don’t know why. And that’s just how the progressives like it.

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35 responses to “Mass Transit as the Newest Entitlement

  1. They will also promise to use the money generated by the Transportation and Climate Initiative, the new additive regional carbon tax on motor fuels. Not scheduled to start until 2022, assuming the General Assembly goes along (it will.) But the vague promise of TCI dollars, with no basis in reality, will prove sufficient to get past the elections…..In reality, there will be a long line of people trying for a piece of that new pie.

  2. Not that I agree with such actions, but insurance companies are exempt from State taxes in Connecticut and they are the insurance capital of the world. Being exempt, the companies don’t even file so the State is completely unaware of their loss.

    Hopefully, Richmond will at least continue to count ridership. At least then they can estimate the income should they reverse the decision in the future. Makes it less of an entitlement move and more of a come-on.

  3. Most folks don’t realize it but a lot of transit gets funded from the Feds and it comes out of the Federal Gas tax.

    Other funding comes from a state gas tax and some toll road revenues.

    There is little sentiment in Congress to raise the Federal Gas tax even though the trust fund runs in the red and is now subsidized.

    One presumes that eventually the pandemic will subside and transit will again be viable for those that want/need it – which probably means the folks who cannot work from home and who work in lower-income service jobs.

    but there has always been carve-outs from other transportation funding for transit…….

    • The FTA provides funding as long as you can provide a justification, yes. On capital projects not for maintenance.

      Someone has to pay for the personal to provide maintenance, they don’t do it for free and the Unions that they belong to have to problems striking.

      The Government providing more money isn’t the solution for a business wanting to operate in the black.

  4. so anyone can use it? even visitors from Alabama who come to visit the Civil War monuments and museums and spend their money in the city… oh wait…

  5. This would not be an entitlement. An entitlement is something a person gets because he meets certain criteria, usually income.
    Anyone would be able to ride the bus free. So it is a public service, akin to being able to use public parks free. Because only about 20 percent of the GRTC budget comes from the fare box, this proposal would not constitute a radical realignment of its budget.

    And it has been done in other cities, Olympia, Wash. and Kansas City, Mo., for example.

    In the end, however, this proposal has the distinct feel of an incumbent politician looking desperately for support. As one of his opponents commented, where has he been for the past 3 and a half years.

    As for the transfer of wealth that Jim is so concerned about, all taxes constitute a transfer of wealth of some sort. Over the years, the middle class has benefited significantly from these expenditures. Two examples: public education at all levels and the interstate highway system. On Monday, I was able to travel to Northern Virginia to visit my grandchildren for only the cost of gas (which included some tax). If not for the virus, I could have continued on into D.C. and visited magnificent public museums with no admissions fee. The upper middle class and upper class are getting their share of the wealth transfer as well. The wealth of the Beltway Bandits benefitting from handsome government consultancies and contracts is evident.

    Another aspect of this proposal would be that residents in the surrounding jurisdictions would be helping to pay for GRTC through the regional gas tax add-on. Henrico and Chesterfield should then use this circumstance as leverage to expand the service into the counties even more.

    • Dick, it is true that the middle class benefits from public education. But who pays the taxes that pay for public education? The middle class.

      It is true that middle-class motorists benefit from roads, bridges and highways. But who pays to build and maintain the roads, bridges, and highways? For the most part, the middle class, either through user fees like gas taxes and car-sales taxes, or indirectly through general sales taxes.

      In other words, those programs benefit those who pay for them (although the connection between he who pays and he who benefits could be made tighter, especially in transportation). The disconnect between he who pays for mass transit (the middle class mostly) and he whom “free” fares are designed to benefit (lower-income folks) is far greater. Clearly, it amounts to a redistribution of wealth.

      • well.. folks ought to know that the general sales tax provides more money that the gas tax in Virginia.

        so it’s not just the middle class…

        ditto with schools

        most everyone who live somewhere pays real estate taxes – even if they rent… the landlord pays that tax and incorporates it in the rental fee.

      • Those rich folks who send their kids to private schools and universities could argue that their wealth was being redistributed. But I would counter that they were getting a benefit for it by having the general public being better educated and ultimately earning more and contributing to their (rich folks) wealth. Just as I would contend that the easier we make it for poor folks to get to jobs and, in the Richmond area, to better paying jobs in the counties, the more likelier it will be that these poor folks will work themselves into the middle class and be paying more in taxes.

  6. Baconator with extra cheese

    The city already makes snow plowing, maintaining roads, public safety, maintaining schools, and cutting grass in parks free…. they just don’t do it.
    You don’t even get what you pay for with taxes in the RVA… Might as well make buses “free”… That way the less fortunate in RVA can enjoy some amenities in Henrico and Chesterfield for “free”.

  7. Blacksburg Transit is free. Well not really. Free for students and the fares are built into the tuition. BT is Fully funded by VPI, Christiansburg, and grant money. Town of Blacksburg pays nothing. Maybe Richmond can get somebody else to pay for free transportation.

    BT is ranked as one of the best small community transit systems. Costs about 17 million a year. 3.5 million riders taking a trip last year. 30 years ago I remember it was clean, safe, on reasonably on time except when it was cold/snowing/raining/windy/hot.

    • Same for JMU students, and W&M students. If you want people to use it, make it free.

      If I can stow my car and ride around on buses for free, that’s one less car on the downtown streets.

      • It’s not free, it’s paid for by their tuition and by an agreement with the school. If you want to be provided a service for free, that’s called theft.

        There is no such thing as a free service, that person driving the bus needs paid, the person changing the oil of the bus needs paid, the person washing the bus needs paid, the person cleaning the bus needs paid, the person at Central managing the bus routes needs paid and this goes on forever.

        All of the individuals are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union or a Union of their craft. They don’t make penny’s, that’s a job you retire from and receive and pension.

    • $5 a trip, right? Sounds like FRED – the Fredericksburg Transit.

      It’s a money-eater for sure!! and I find myself going back and forth on it.

      but the money for it seems to always come – the locals would not pay for it totally by themselves… but they will reluctantly do a match, not without grousing…

    • Uh, you don’t think students are paying for that with their fees? Of course they are. Free is quite hard to find….”Somebody else pays” is not the same as “free.”

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        I looked it up. 125 bucks of the VPI tuition fee is the payment for the free ride on the BT. Clever marketing going on in Blacksburg. Beats hiking across that big campus and wide drill field.

    • “on reasonably on time except when it was cold/snowing/raining/windy/hot”

      So are you saying it was only reasonably on time the few weeks out of the year when it isn’t cold/snowing/raining/windy/hot?

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        I rode BT for one year. Walked after that. It was pretty easy to hitch a ride in bad weather.

        • My daughter went to JMU. On a couple of occasions she had back-to-back classes on the east and west campuses. According to her the buses were bang on. She said she was rarely late because the buses ran on time.

          She also said “Never ride the bus on a Friday night. The buses needed hosing out every Saturday morning.”

  8. Let’s make everything in Virginia free for everybody, like today’s Virginia regime and its lackeys and cronies want. Then everybody’s problems will be solved forever and forever just like today’s Virginia regime promises all Virginians, giving them all the opportunity to live in paradise, free everything, in a perfect world of perfect happiness for all! Wow!

    • These days I’d be happy if they’d just trim the brush in front of the street signs. They stopped doing that over 10 years ago. I’m not even asking or suggesting that they replace all the faded, illegible street signs.

  9. Years ago, Thomas Sowell said that public transit should be funded from the welfare budget.

    • The question is what we do we do with these massive ongoing mass transit boondoggles that has been forced by leftists into their many certain failures, leaving us the wreckage of rotting dinosaurs. The DC region’s subway is a perfect metaphor of the collapse of major American cities under corrupted Democratic regimes. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Seattle, Portland, San Fransisco, Los Angeles, and Richmond, to name a few.

      Meanwhile, corrupt Democratic state regimes ruling New York, California, Illinois, and Virginia, among numerous other states, are proving at warp speed that Democratic regimes can actively destroy whole states too, turning them to into dysfunctional hell holes. Will all America be next? The next election may tell that tale.

      • No list (even a partial one) of failed democrat-run cities would be complete without the inclusion of Detroit.

        🙂

      • FYI – Here is a list of the most dangerous cities in the US (Source: CBS News article at their website) based on violent crime rates.

        The dates are the last year in which the mayor of a given city was NOT a democrat (source: my own on-line research). NOTE: If I was not able to easily determine a given mayor’s political party I assumed that mayor was not a democrat – these are the years with question marks – so it is possible democrat control has been longer than shown for those cities.

        1. St. Louis, MO 1949
        2. Detroit, MI 1962
        3. Baltimore, MD 1967
        4. Memphis, TN 1991
        5. Little Rock, AR 1994
        6. Milwaukee, WI 1960 (Socialist)
        7. Rockford, IL 2017
        8. Cleveland, OH 1989
        9. Stockton, CA 2017
        10. Albuquerque, NM 2017
        11. Springfield, IL 2011?
        12. Indianapolis, In 2016
        13. Oakland, CA 1966
        14. San Bernardino, CA 2020
        15. Anchorage, AK 2015
        16. Nashville, TN 1951?
        17. Lansing, MI 1993?
        18. New Orleans, LA 1872
        19. Minneapolis, MN 1977
        20. Chicago, IL 1933

  10. There is something called TDM – Traffic Demand Management that is part and parcel to transit.

    It addressed things like bike and ped as well as commuter parking lots and van and bus pools by providing govt-subsidized insurance to the carriers. Most van pools would not operate without that insurance.

    It also involves things like putting a neighborhood commercial strip near residential for basic services – in theory to save more and longer auto trips.

    HOV is also part of that with goals to not only reduce traffic numbers but also pollution.

    congestion-based toll roads like the ones in NoVa are also part of it.

    It’s way more than just “free” transit!

  11. Mass transit as a government service. I’m good with that. We should really eliminate postage fees and toll roads while we are at it. Either that or make citizens pay user fees when they call the cops – that business needs to start operating in the black!!

  12. “In health care, privately insured patients subsidize Medicaid and Medicare patients.”

    In health care, privately insured patients subsidize uninsured patients. Which is more efficient?

    • Actually employer-provided health insurance is subsidized by taxpayers and also by the young and healthy, because the money used for premiums is not taxed , not FICA, Fed or State and if an employer does offer health insurance, the Govt mandates guaranteed issue – the insurance company cannot deny coverage to most employees – and on top of that – the premiums have to be the same to all no matter their age or health status.

      Medicare is indeed subsidized – taxpayers, by law, have to pay 75% of the premiums. Without Medicare, most seniors would not have health insurance at all – no insurers would insure them at premiums most seniors could afford.

  13. Is this wealth transfer to the poor, or wealth transfer to the Mass Transit cronies?

    IDK anything about GRTC, but if its anything like most mass transit boondoggles then user fees aren’t covering its expenses and ridership is in free fall. Once user fees aren’t being counted, then who’s to know or care why GRTC needs more taxpayer funding. Maybe they see the writing on the wall, and this is just a move to keep the cash flowing into crony pockets.

    • The theory for TDM is – that for every car you take off the road that you save $$$ in new construction, maintenance and operations…

      These days – just about anyone who wants a car can get one .. not like when transit first started.

  14. … you just want to have the last word

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