Transit Cuts – How Bad Could It Be?

busstop10The GOP majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate have proposed budget cuts to public transit funding by as much as 40 percent, that could have catastrophic consequences for Metro Transit riders. Local advocacy groups Transportation Forward and Transit for Livable Communities are holding a rally tonight at 6pm at the Rice Street / Capitol Green Line Station.  Independent from that action at the legislature, Metro Transit has also been discussing a fare increase of 25 or 50 cents, which seems likely to happen regardless of funding cuts by the GOP-led legislature.

Here’s what I think will happen. There will be a 25 cent or 50 cent fare increase, but it will offset only a small portion of the lost subsidy. Significant service cuts and other economies will be necessary to balance the budget.

Metro Transit will target three kinds of service. The goal will be to minimize the number of people losing service, but it will be unavoidable that some will be left without transit.

  1. Trips and routes with high subsidy per passenger. There are some poorly performing routes, especially suburban locals, as well as evening and weekend service all over the system. Quite a few local routes were recently upgraded from hourly to half-hourly, especially in St. Paul. They’ll go back to hourly. Lines that feed the Green Line had their frequency increased. Ridership rose, but not in proportion to the added bus miles. Some of those will probably drop back to their old frequencies. The Red Line BRT from Mall of America to Apple Valley is poorly patronized for its 15 minute weekday frequency and may be cut to half-hourly. There are a couple of unproductive route segments that will probably be eliminated.
  2. Routes with lower subsidies per passenger that can be thinned and still carry the load. 7.5 minute frequencies will go to 10 minutes, 10 minutes to 12-15 , 15 minutes to 20, and 20 minutes to 30. In some cases articulated buses may replace standard 40-foot buses in order to carry the loads.
  3. Express and limited stop services. You’ll see quite a few express trips on the fringes of the rush hours eliminated. The fare increase will drive away some passengers and higher frequency expresses will be thinned accordingly. Some of the expresses to the University of Minnesota can be cut because their riders can still take downtown expresses and transfer to the Green Line.

For the most part LRT service will remain intact. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the overnight Green Line service cut, and the early morning and evening service reduced on both the Blue and Green Lines. If this year’s elimination of the special Route 679 express from Minnetonka to the Twins games is any indicator, the special Northstar commuter trains to twins and Vikings games may be in jeopardy.

For that matter, the Northstar line itself will be a big target. It has by far the highest subsidy per passenger in the metro area. That said, it carries the equivalent of about 50 bus loads each weekday, so those passengers would have to be served. It could be replaced with buses, although the operating strategy would have to be different to offer competitive travel time. Because some of the station locations are well off the highway, it takes much too long for each bus to make all the rail stops. Instead, buses would serve only one or two stations, then run non-stop to downtown. Once again, I’m not advocating it, but it would lower the subsidy per passenger and save money.

New service may have to be put on the back burner, and that could delay the C Line BRT on Penn Avenue in North Minneapolis and future aBRT routes.

Non-service cuts

Metro Transit is a big organization and most staff and administrative expenses are funded by the same operating dollars as transit service. If the budget reductions are severe, the agency will have to decide if admin and support costs can be cut in order to save keep more service on the street. Vehicle maintenance staffing rises and falls with vehicle mileage, so that takes care of itself. In fact, vehicle maintenance is one of the few places where Metro Transit can use capital dollars to replace operating dollars. If the bus fleet shrinks, that lowers the cost to replace buses and, for awhile at least, those dollars can support the maintenance staff.

After that, Metro Transit has some choices to make. Do you keep a full-size Marketing Department when there’s less service to market? How about the Transit Information Center (live operators), when the vast majority of info requests are now computerized thanks to NextTrip and the online Trip Planner? Can the number of transit police be reduced? How about the number of bus shelter cleaners? I don’t have the data to advocate for any of these cuts, but Metro Transit will have to decide which support services are more important than the equivalent number of bus miles.

If the cuts are big enough, Metro Transit could close a garage, most likely the one in Brooklyn Center. That will reduce overhead staff and utility cost, and should also reduce bus deadhead mileage.

Other transit operators

Scarcity always results in fights over resources, and that will happen here. There has always been tension between the Met Council and the suburban opt-out transit authorities. With the exception of Maple Grove, their subsidies per passenger are much higher than Metro Transit’s. One could argue that an opt-out route with a $6.00 subsidy per passenger should be cut before touching urban routes with a $3.00 subsidy per passenger. Even if the opt-outs have to swallow the same percentage cuts as Metro Transit, they won’t be happy about it. Look for them to lobby the legislature for more independence from the Met Council, while keeping their existing funding.

Part of the reason the opt-outs are less efficient is that they have built full size administrative organizations on top of small bus fleets (Maple Grove excepted). Their reason for doing so was to have local control of their bus service, but that comes at a cost. Transit is one of those businesses where size creates economies of scale. Once the basic admin structure is in place, you can scale up the fleet dramatically with few additional employees. A 50-bus garage takes about the same admin staff as a 200-bus garage. They have many fewer buses per admin employee than Metro Transit.

Maple Grove’s service is very efficient because they have almost no admin staff devoted to transit and contract with Metro Transit to run most of their operation. Metro Transit may have added a couple of employees to oversee Maple Grove’s 30-40 buses and not much else, hence lower costs.

So that’s the tradeoff, local control of service versus lower overhead cost. In a time of financial scarcity, which wins out?

Metro Mobility

It has been widely publicized that Metro Mobility is consuming an ever larger percentage of the transit budget and that the growing senior population is driving its ridership increases. It has also been publicized that Metro Mobility service extends beyond the service area required by federal law, and the trips beyond the mandated service area are more expensive because of the distance involved.

Because Metro Mobility service is a legal requirement, how do you reduce its costs? Pulling back to the mandated service area would help, although it is politically very difficult to take away services to which people have become accustomed.

I have argued for delivering more Metro Mobility passengers to LRT and other high frequency fixed route service to complete their trips. The Metro Council staff tells me they can’t compel people to transfer to fixed route, but are considering offering free fares to those who do. They’re also hoping to talk the legislature into moving Metro Mobility off transit funding to some other funding source. Given the Republicans’ punitive attitude toward transit, that seems unlikely.

Last thought

Last year the American Public Transit Association declared Metro Transit to be the Transit System of the Year. That accolade is well deserved. It took many years and a lot of hard work to achieve that level of excellence, and now the legislature is proposing to throw it away with the largest budget cut in history. Go figure.

Editor’s Note:  Please show your support for transit funding by attending the rally tonight at 6pm at the Capitol / Rice Street Green Line Station. Get more details via the Facebook event page




Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.