Public transportation in Missouri’s major cities is heavily subsidized; taxpayers cover more than 80 percent of total costs in Saint Louis and Kansas City. The main culprits of these subsidies are high costs and low utilization. For example, most bus routes in Saint Louis roll around the city nearly empty. But a contributing factor to this problem is fares, which remain inexpensive in both cities.
For instance, in Saint Louis, fares are $2 for the bus and $2.50 for the MetroLink. In Kansas City the bus costs only $1.50, aside from a few more expensive routes. Monthly passes offer a steep discount in both cities, and reduced fares are available for the young, the elderly, the disabled, and students.
Low transit fares are generally sold with two arguments. First, and most common, is that public transportation provides transportation to those with little or no income. Higher fares would therefore be a tax on the poor. But not everyone who uses transit is poor. In Kansas City about 78 percent of transit users are above the poverty line (79 percent in Saint Louis). Moreover, wealthy transit users are more likely to use high-capital-cost rapid transit, so they end up receiving a larger subsidy than poorer riders. In Saint Louis, MetroLink ridership is greatly buoyed by well-off passengers using the rail to get to Busch Stadium or summer festivals (the Cardinals effect is noticeable). They too hardly meet the criteria of a group in need of cheap tickets.
To justify subsidizing the well off, many public transportation advocates use the second argument for low fares: high transit ridership is in the public’s interest. They claim that getting people out of their cars and on to transit is good for the environment and good for congestion, thus worth subsidizing heavily. More than a few have advocated getting rid of fares altogether.
However, low transit fares have not gotten people to ditch their cars; less than 5 percent of Saint Louis and Kansas City residents use transit to commute, and those numbers aren’t increasing much. And the low fare revenue makes it difficult for public transportation to make the investments that might make transit more attractive to more residents. That is why even some transit advocates are calling for higher fares.
Saint Louis and Kansas City could set up a system with much higher standard transit fares with lower prices for those below the poverty line. In addition, tickets to stations near sporting events could be more expensive on game days. By looking for ways to make riders pay for more of what their service actually costs, transit agencies might be able to provide better services without going to the general taxpayers for aid. That could be better for everyone, whether they use transit or not.