Why not make public transit free?

  • Article by: MICHAEL FARNSWORTH
  • Updated: June 16, 2014 - 7:36 PM

Just charge taxpayers and businesses to cover the costs now covered by passenger fares.

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The public and dignitaries waited to board the first Green Line train to leave Target Field Station on Saturday.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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On Saturday night, my family and I took a free trip on the newly opened Green Line connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul. The cars were all full, and I couldn’t help thinking, “This is nice, but it won’t last.”

Once the thrill is gone and people have to go through the hassle of buying a ticket or buying a monthly pass, how many will opt out? Then I thought, “What if it were always free?” What if you could just get on a bus or the light rail and always snag a free ride? I’m not trying to promote socialism, just average American slothfulness. Like most, I can afford to pay for a ticket, but I often don’t because it’s a nuisance to have to do so. But I wonder how many of us would ride if it was just a matter of hopping on whenever or wherever we choose. I get light- headed just thinking about it.

Ah, but what about the cost? How could we possibly afford it? Well, we already are paying for it. Public transit is heavily subsidized. The fares that users pay to ride don’t come close to covering the cost. Still, unlike highways that cost a fortune to build and maintain and that bring in no revenue, transit fares at least cover a portion of their expense.

So why not free public transit? Imagine the increase in ridership. Think of the decrease in automobile traffic and pollution. How much would local business benefit from the increase in foot traffic that free public transit would likely bring? Would you pay an extra $50 a year for such a system? Would you pay $100? How much would it actually cost the average taxpayer? And what about downtown businesses? We ask them to add a tax to their services to help pay for football and baseball stadiums. Perhaps a tax to pay for something people actually need is in order.

Free public transit is an idea whose time has come. It’s affordable, it’s logical and it would make Minnesota the talk of the nation — perhaps even the world.

Michael Farnsworth lives in Minneapolis.

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