The Gas Tax is Too Damn Low

102010 Dsc0747 FreerideThe price of gasoline in the Twin Cities is very low right now, averaging $2.22 a gallon across the metro. Cheap gas is a short-term benefit to people who drive cars, but is horrible for just about everyone in the long term. Cheap gas incentivizes people to drive more miles, make more solo trips instead of carpooling or using transit, and buy less efficient vehicles. When the price of fuel is low, thousands of small decisions are made that all move us a little closer to the coming climate disaster.

That’s why I’m happy to see that Governor Tim Walz has put increasing the gas tax high in his agenda. A predictable set of opponents is lining up against any increase in fuel taxes, claiming that a few cents per gallon more will cripple our economy. This is a peculiar form of amnesia, forgetting that gas prices were as high as $4/gallon a few years ago and we somehow survived. We seem disproportionately sensitive to gas price increases, which is unfortunate: higher fuel prices would be a benefit to society even if we took all the money and buried it in the back yard of the governor’s mansion. Of course, it would be even better to put that money to constructive use, and catching up on highway and bridge repair is sorely needed.

After reading Pat Thompson’s thoughtful piece about the possibility of no-fare transit, I began to wonder what it would take to use gas tax revenue to make a bold improvement in our region’s transit system as well. When I dug up a few numbers and did the math, I found that we could buy an incredible public benefit for a modest increase in local fuel taxes. I’m neither an economist nor a transit planner, but I am a guy with a spreadsheet and a dream, so let’s dig up some numbers and throw them together.

Metro Transit’s total revenue in 2017 was $393 Million, and about 25% of that came from fare collection, so $98,250,000. If we made all bus and train service free, we’d need to make up 98 million somewhere else.

According to MNDot, each cent of gas tax results in about 30 million dollars in annual revenue [1]. I’m sure we’d suffer from diminishing returns from reduced demand if we raised that tax too high, but I think it’s reasonable to use that estimate if gas prices stay in the $2-4 range that we’ve seen in the past 10 years. Taxing drivers in greater Minnesota to pay for a metro-only benefit might be a hard sell, but as it so happens, the 7-county metro accounts for 48% of Minnesota’s vehicle miles traveled.

Let’s round up a bit to account for reduced driving and increased transit usage (excellent problems to have) and call it a 7 cent gas tax increase in the Metro to abolish fares. We get increased usage, better service (no need to wait for others to pay), no more maintenance cost of fare boxes, and we can set all the people who currently work in fare collection and enforcement to a more noble purpose. To me, this seems like a slam dunk. Many of the same lower-income people who would be hardest-hit by gas tax increases (fuel taxes are regressive, as are all sales taxes) would benefit the most from eliminating transit fares.

Applying that same 30-million-per-cent estimate, to close the $600 million statewide funding gap and abolish fares on Metro Transit would take a 20 cent per gallon increase statewide and a further 7 cent increase in the Twin Cities metro area. Right now that would bring gas prices to around $2.50 per gallon, still quite low compared to recent history in Minnesota or the present in other high-income nations. We could go much further – fund a BRT project every year for $40 million or so, double Metro Transit’s entire operating budget of $420 million, expand the intercity bus network across greater Minnesota – and still be under $3/gallon.

What’s the Point?

There are many details I’m glossing over, of course. A county-level fuel tax has never been done in Minnesota, as far as I can tell. A 1928 amendment to the Minnesota constitution requires fuel taxes to be dedicated to bridges and trunk highways – could we work around that in the short term by directing more of the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax to transit in the same amount as the increased fuel tax? You’d also have to do something to guarantee long-term funding so that our transit system doesn’t become a victim of its own success if people drastically reduce their car miles.

Setting aside those details for a moment, I think these numbers show that it’s wrong to treat a strong public transit system as an unrealistic fantasy. Buses and trains are public goods that help all of us (even if we don’t use them for our daily commute) and the funding is attainable without major sacrifice. We need to start to spread the message that transformational change in our transit system is possible and absolutely necessary to protect the next generation of humans in Minnesota and everywhere in the world. Given what we know about humanity’s role in global climate change, I think it’s irresponsible to describe no-fare public transit as “too expensive”.


Featured image credit: Metro Transit

[1]: That article doesn’t go into detail about how they got the $30 million figure, but it seems in line with Department of Energy data that Minnesota uses about 2.7 billion gallons (!) of gasoline annually. One billion (gallons) times one cent (per gallon) equals 10 million (dollars).

113 thoughts on “The Gas Tax is Too Damn Low

  1. Betsy Larey

    There’s an old saying, nothing in life is free. What your talking about is subsidizing people who take transit options. I’m fine for reducing fares/free for lower income, but not everyone. The gas tax needs to pay for roads and bridges as well. Not all of it can go towards mass transit. Just my 02

    1. Amity Foster

      Why not use the increased gas tax for both free transit and roads & bridges? And can I ask you why you support free/reduced fares for lower income people but not everyone?

      1. Betsy Larey

        Because you are using something and you should pay for it. I drive a car I pay for it. I fly I buy a ticket If you are thinking it should be free to push people out of cars that won’t happen. People drive for a lot of different reasons (scheduling, hauling kids, hauling clubs etc) The gas tax pays for roads and bridges. Light rail was sold to everyone based on projected ridership income. That’s part of how it was approved

        1. Nick M

          I’d argue that it is not “subsidizing people who take transit options”. I’d say that it is internalizing the negative externalities of driving and investing in the economically preferred outcome. We will all pay less if fewer people drive, especially at peak (when the share of commuting trips is already high).

          Why, you might ask? If we add a lane to a 4-lane highway that is congested for only an hour a day, the benefits only accrue to the few people that travel at that peak hour but the cost of building and maintaining that extra lane is spread out across everyone that drives–even the people who never drive on that road or at that time of day.

          If making transit less expensive while increasing the cost of driving (especially driving at peak, I’d love to see transit funded by congestion pricing instead of gas tax), that sends a signal to people that their driving has a higher cost than occupying a seat on a bus that is already running. Which will actually SAVE money (and time) for the people who don’t have an option to take transit. That is how transit investments are justified, not on the idea that the riders will actually cover their costs with fares.

          1. Brian

            Congestion pricing is just a tax on the employed.

            A majority of workers drive during rush hour because their employer expects them to work 8 to 5 or close to those hours. It doesn’t help that school and other social activities are scheduled in the evening hours.

            I don’t think most workers just decide they want to drive during the most congested hours of the day voluntarily. They do so because that is when their employer requires them at work.

            Even transit is designed around the 8 to 5 day. I can get a bus home every five to eight minutes from 4 pm to 5 pm. After 5:30 pm buses get very scarce. If you like to work early and leave before rush hour then transit won’t work for you on the route I take.

            1. Nick M

              Don’t you think the scarcity or transit outside peak congestion hours is a function of how we under-price driving? If driving was priced appropriately we wouldn’t be debating whether there is enough money to repair roads. If roads are under-priced, people will naturally use more than they should (basic microeconomics). So it’s not a tax, it’s a way to make people pay for what they use.

              Furthermore, if there is anyone who has the means to pay more, it’s the employed. Pushing the cost of driving into property taxes to get the elderly, disabled, and transit-dependent poor to pay for roads is hardly a great campaign slogan (or a sustainable way to run a society).

              1. Brian

                I’m all for a higher gas tax that actually goes to roads, and doesn’t use accounting tricks to pay for transit. I know a lot of taxpayers are against a 25 cent increase being floated out there, but I would be all right with that.

                I contacted my local state representative, but he is a staunch Republican dead set against raising any taxes including the gas tax.

                Some of the suggestions I’ve seen talk of a congestion charge of $15 to $20 per day on top of gas tax. There will be fewer people employed if that comes to pass. Some on the lower end of the employment spectrum would just quit instead of spending upwards of two hours wages getting to/from work.

                  1. Brian

                    If work in the suburbs there is little chance you have transit available to your employer.

                    There are over 100,000 jobs in downtown Minneapolis, but not nearly enough jobs for everybody in the metro.

              1. Brian

                How is it fair that the middle class has a tax increase of potentially hundreds of dollars per month so the low income folks get free transportation?

                If congestion pricing was really $20 per day it would cause housing in my area drop in value to the point that many would be underwater and stuck paying congestion pricing because they couldn’t move.

                Why is it okay for construction to pollute to build more housing in Minneapolis, but driving is bad? Cement production comprises 5% of CO2 emissions worldwide while 50% of solid waste is from construction and demolition.

                1. Betsy Larey

                  A gas tax is not going to cost you hundreds of dollars. Unless you drive 24/7. We are a benevolent state and try to help those in need. Free transit would allow low income folks to get to a job. And that would be a good thing, I would hope you agree

                  1. Brian

                    How did you get gas tax out of my comment on congestion pricing?

                    I have seen lots of posts from people who think congestion pricing should be anywhere from $10 to $20 a day if you drive during rush hour. $20 per day times 20 work days would be $400 per month.

                    1. Betsy Larey

                      So you want to force low income people to stop commuting? They can’t afford congestion pricing. And when you live in the burbs there is little mass transit. Very few jobs in the burbs, so you would force them to move to the city. Where there aren’t enough affordable places to live in the first place. Maybe you could just stop disliking cars and peeps who drive them long enough to realize many don’t have a choice.

  2. Ben K

    Are we talking gasoline or fuel? or both?

    You say we survived $4 per gallon fuel prices but we also saw the implementation of fuel surcharges on deliveries and inflation on food and other prices. Let us not forget that everything that cost companies more will cost the end user more.

    Is there any hard data on how those of us that cannot use transit to commute will benefit for contributing more? Less people on the road platitudes need not apply.

    1. Brian

      Survived? Do you forget that $4 gas was one of the reasons for the worst recession since the 1930s? For a family using 100 gallons a month that means $200 a month they aren’t spending elsewhere.

      Diesel got up as high as $4.69 locally in 2008. Higher fuel prices affect transit operators in a big way as they burn thousands of gallons a day. Metro Transit is switching to electric buses, but that will take at least 15 years to complete. A new diesel bus purchased in 2019 won’t get replaced again for 12 years.

      1. Christa MChris Moseng

        Disregarding where all the money went, versus where tax revenue would go, certainly helps your argument. And I bet we could carve Metro Transit out of paying for the tax that pays for itself.

        1. Brian

          Did you notice I said $4 gas was ONE of the reasons for the recession?

          I know plenty of people at the time who simply quit spending money besides essentials if it required driving. Maybe they would have spent $100 taking their kids some place, but they stayed home because it would have cost an extra $5 in gas. It is pretty irrational, but the price of gas has a huge affect on people.

          The average family was spending an extra $100 to $300 a month on gasoline and that was money not being spent in the economy in better ways.

          1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

            Must have been rough to live in a place that required so much driving just to participate in basic economic life of society.

      2. Tim

        I look around, and I see a lot of people driving big trucks and SUVs that are less than eleven years old, and buying houses that require them to have long commutes.

        People didn’t learn.

  3. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

    Absolutely! No need to overthink the basic concept: tax the hell out of things that are bad for society. Our planet is dying and burning gasoline is a big part of it. Adding a buck to the cost of a full tank of gas is one of the smallest steps we could take, but it would be a step in the right direction.

    1. Brian

      Essentially you would like to cause inflation and possibly a recession then? Every single thing we buy was hauled by a fuel burning vehicle at some point.

      Most people aren’t going to move simply because they spend another $1,000 a year on gas taxes. However, it will be $1,000 a year they don’t put into the economy.

      1. Julie Kosbab

        Taxes like this go into the economy. They go to both construction and wages. It’s not as though the government just sits on the cash!

        It’s a different route of creating demand, and the demand created is different.

        1. Brian

          I don’t work in the road construction industry so all it means is my pocket is $1,000 lighter and I have to cut my standard of living. For some it might mean their kids go unfed so they can afford to drive to work. My income doesn’t go up. My taxes don’t go up.

          In fact, there is a good chance I would lose my job if this happens. My company sells a good/service that people would likely cut out of their budget to cover their gas tax increase.

          Explain again how I benefit by $1,000 a year if this happened? By your measure we should just increase the state income tax to 50% of our income because we’ll all get that 50% back in spades.

          The cost of road construction would go up substantially if the amount of road money suddenly tripled. There isn’t enough machinery or laborers in the five state area for state highway construction to triple.

          1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

            Where is the $1,000 figure coming from? Based on the “buck a tank” statement Anton suggested, that assumes someone is filling their car up 3x/day. I don’t know anyone who does that except possibly while traveling all day.

            Gas prices fluctuate a lot, and I can imagine it’s not the easiest thing to budget for. That said, for me a 7c/gallon increase would increase my driving cost less than 50 cents a week on average (I use about a half-tank a week, and it usually takes 5-6 gallons per fillup.) The tax would add about $25/year to my expenses; likely not enough for me to even notice within general gas price variability. Even at the “buck-a-tank” philosophy, most people likely fill their tank once or twice a week, which would mean they’d pay an extra $50-$100 or so. Again, for most people I’d guess that’d be seen no different than the variability of gas prices in general.

            1. Brian

              My sincere apologies. I read it as $1 per gallon instead of $1 per tank.

              If we want to make transit free find another way to pay for it. A gas tax increase to pay for free transit means that any gas tax increase to pay for actual road repairs is doomed.

              MNDOT has done a good job catching up, but there are plenty of bridges and highways due for complete rebuild. I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul is at the point of needing a total rebuild. The Lowry tunnel is nearly 50 years old and will eventually need a rebuild. Plenty of state highways in rural areas need repair too.

              1. Julie Kosbab

                While fundamentally a gas tax is a consumption tax, the real question is if it really represents societal cost of the use of that gas. Arguably, it doesn’t come anywhere close.

                Meanwhile, there is societal value to mass transit and the reduction of emissions and fuel use.

                Gas tax should perhaps be a Pigovian tax, rather than a pure consumption tax. The use of gas creates negative impacts; the tax should be used to reduce those impacts. One way to reduce them is to encourage transit.

                1. Brian

                  If I had to depend on transit my choices would be to quit working, or live at the office.

                  I can’t afford to move at this point in my life and I can’t afford to rent an apartment in Minneapolis in addition to my house either.

                  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

                    Yet you can afford $2500-3000 per gallon in fuel alone (per your $1000/yr at $1/gal comment above) which likely represents 30,000 miles per year (assuming a mediocre 30 mi/gallon car). That’s a lot of time and money spent behind the windshield! Something’s not adding up here…

                    1. Brian

                      I was using a hypothetical family with two vehicles. It isn’t real hard to use 1,000 gallons of gas in a year especially with some of the vehicle people drive.

                      I personally drove about 12,500 miles in the past year and spent quite a bit less than $2,500 to $3,000 on gas.

                      It would cost me at least $20,000 to sell my house and move. (Realtors and moving vans are not free.) Even if I could get by with no car and transit was free I couldn’t rent in Minneapolis and keep my house.

                2. Betsy Larey

                  That would be in your opinion. In a matter of a few years we will have electric cars. And that takes away your arguement for pollution. The problem with mass transit is it doesn’t work for most people. It’s not like NY or DC where you can hop on and get home. The Twin Cities is too spread out.People are not going to get off and walk 10-15 min to go home. Thats simply the way it is. So electric cars solves the problem

                  1. Brian

                    What will be the non-polluting source of electricity for all those electric cars? Most electric utilities plan to continue to burn at least some fossil fuels for the next 30 years.

      2. Nick M

        What if we made sure that freight movements were more efficient by ensuring that they could get where they need to go faster and with less congestion? Would that cause inflation and an increase in costs for businesses? Probably not. Businesses would love that.

        If you agree, then I think you’d support the idea of making transit more attractive and single occupant vehicle travel more expensive (and less attractive) because that may be the single most effective policy for improving freight movement.

        Freight users pay pretty high taxes and fees for many reasons (commercial vehicles are hard on rods) but maintaining fewer lanes would help save them money. How can we maintain fewer lanes? Dampen peak demand. Any multi-lane road that moves at 65+ MPH off peak but only 30 MPH at peak is a perfect example. A whole bunch of people are all traveling at the same time, increasing the cost of maintenance by using lanes that are only needed for a few hours per day. If fewer people drove at peak, we would need fewer lanes, which is less for those freight users to pay for. So in addition to less congestion and less wasted time, we’ve also reduced the actual cost of driving for those who need to drive (for real need, not it makes my life easier need).

        Sure, buses are heavy vehicles and they cause wear and tear. But again, we don’t need to have as many lanes because they still move people more efficiently than individual cars.

        Higher costs for driving are a policy that unite liberal and libertarian. Everyone in the middle just likes their subsidy and hates everyone else’s.

      3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        This is not how inflation works.

        This is not how taxes work.

        This is not how government spending (in this case on transit) works.

        We should have started pricing the externalities associated with burning fossil fuels a long time ago. That we didn’t, and built a transportation system grounded in ignoring them, is not a good reason to keep doing so.

        People and businesses are not going to change if their incentives do not change.

    2. Monte Castleman

      One of the greatest gains in mobility, comfort, convenience, and economic growth ever is “bad for society?” I’d disagree.

      1. Nick M

        It’s great for people with the privilege to enjoy the subsides, bad for the people that pay, either economically or through absorbing the negative externalities that enabled your mobility, comfort, convenience, and economic growth.

        The great times that boomers enjoyed over the last half century will be paid back, with interest, by future generations. In climate change, in deferred infrastructure costs, and in a less comfortable, convenient, and economically growing lifestyle.

        1. Monte Castleman

          “Privilege” is a ridiculous, offensive term, but you don’t have to be that rich to enjoy the comfort, convenience, and mobility that’s only possible in a car. Drive through a poor area of any city and how many cheap cars are around. Witness the fury when we tried to take away parking and direct access to the front of houses in one of the poorer areas of the city.

          As for climate change I hear there’s something called an “electric car” coming up, (or atmospheric sulfur injection seems promising) and we took care of a lot of of our deffered infrastructure costs with the last gas tax increase.

            1. Monte Castleman

              Maybe “offensive” is too strong of word, but I don’t like the term. To me “privileged” is someone like George Washington Vanderbilt, who built the largest house in the country, Biltmore Estate. Not someone who just earns their keep in society by working a job. Not someone that can afford to drive a car, whether it’s a $800 beater or something nice Not even someone that can afford to buy a modest house.

              I was going to write an article to defend the Minneapolis homeowners that were accused of being “privileged” (and other terms) in the context of the 2040 plan, but after consultation decided to move on to other things since the plan has been adopted, and ultimately the 2040 plan is none of my business.

          1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

            Part of the reason so many people have to “enjoy” the benefits of a car is because we’ve structured so much of our transportation infrastructure around the idea of everyone owning a vehicle. We’ve moved many jobs into the suburbs, to areas where transit is infrequent or non-existent, and then built much of our housing stock in similarly-transit-infreqent or non-existent areas. We’ve literally tore up some of those poor neighborhoods in order to make driving easier!

            There’s also a lot of companies that prey on that necessity for a car and sell cheap cars for more than they’re worth with extremely high interest rates to people that don’t meet standard bank requirements for an auto loan and make it even more difficult for poor people to get ahead. At best they’re stuck paying above market value for a “cheap” car, and at worst they pay for a while, have an unexpected bill that they can’t afford, and have the car repossessed when they can’t pay their loan on time.

            Sure, cars have made travel more convenient. But we’ve also structured our infrastructure to make them even easier at the expense of other transportation options. They’re also not “cheap” for many people and can easily lead people into debt that they can’t recover from. To ignore that when talking about how great cars are is fundamentally ignoring what has made cars the prominent transportation method that they are in the USA.

      2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Yes. Cars killed cities, destroyed local businesses, literally divided and destroyed neighborhoods, increased distances between people, generated social isolation, forced people into debt, took up huge tracts of physical space, etc. before we get into externalities of death, damage and climate change.

        But they’re great for road trips.

  4. Brian

    Why do writers and others on not seem to understand that the gas tax is dedicated by state constitution for use on state highways? The legislature could not legally raise the gas tax and allocate the new gas tax to transit.

    However, there are other ways to shift funds around that are legal.

    1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      The author explicitly mentioned this in the article.

      “A 1928 amendment to the Minnesota constitution requires fuel taxes to be dedicated to bridges and trunk highways – could we work around that in the short term by directing more of the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax to transit in the same amount as the increased fuel tax?”

    2. Ryan Ricard Post author

      For what it’s worth, your reply to my comment on Pat’s post was the first time that I had heard of that particular amendment, so thank you for helping me research this post!

  5. Jeb RachJeb Rach

    Taking the premise of ~$100m extra being dedicated to Twin Cities transit:

    I’d argue we’d be better off using at least part of that money to expand transit access and make it more usable for more people. A 50/50 split could mean making transit free for those who have TAP cards, pushing people to apply for them more, and easing the restrictions (higher income limit, etc.) If there’s still some money to push towards fare policy, perhaps lowering the fare or removing the rush-hour surcharge and upgrading the fare media to allow contactless debit/credit cards and doing automatic fare capping (so that there isn’t the requirement to have $65-$90 available in order to see the benefits of a monthly pass) would be in order.

    The other $50m could go towards implementing an aBRT route each year, or implementing one every two years while expanding access (especially frequency) into more of the metro area. While park-and-rides aren’t ideal for long-term transit use, a bit of funding going towards that to connect to BRT/aBRT lines or light rail lines could be a way to show that funding is being used in part for those that still need vehicles for part of the trip, especially areas that can’t be well-served by walk/bike-up transit due to road design decisions in much of the suburban MSP metro area.

    I’m not convinced that the biggest issue to Metro Transit’s ridership numbers is the general fare. I do think there’s some issues with fare burden being placed on the lowest-income people in our area, and a focused effort on ensuring as many of those as possible can get TAP cards and making the fare on them free could focus fare relief on those who most need it. For middle and upper-income individuals, I’m still of the opinion that making transit more accessible and more frequent would do more to drive transit usage than the fare cost.

    1. Brian

      The fare was a huge issue for why I didn’t take transit to work from my previous home. My incremental cost of driving was less than the cost of a monthly bus pass. For several years I was able to walk less than 1/4 mile to a bus stop. Unfortunately, it was one of those mini buses that rides worse than a buckboard. I then had to transfer to another bus downtown. It wasn’t worth paying more to ride in a horrible vehicle.

      By the time I seriously looked at taking the bus again the routes had been cut. I now had to walk nearly a mile and then take a bus all the way to downtown St. Paul and then transfer to another bus to downtown Minneapolis. It was 20 minutes to drive or 70+ minutes to ride a bus. I could go to a park and ride, but if I was going to drive five miles I might as well drive the remaining seven miles.

      I now live in a different house and take the bus daily. My total commute is about 70 minutes including the drive to the park and ride, but my commute is longer.

      1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

        Would you have still taken the bus had it been free? $1? (Also, would you not have been eligible for TAP or something similar at the time? Under such a scheme making transit free or very-low-cost for lower-income people would be part of it.)

        Also, $50m could potentially be used to upgrade routes from the minibuses to a 30′ low-floor bus (standard bus, just shorter) or a full 40′ bus. It could also be used to make the transfer smoother, more comfortable, or less of a time penalty. Those could improve the situation enough that people would consider paying a bit more for the ride, especially if their commute is 10+ miles (where you’re looking at $1-$2 each way already in gas costs, plus adding the cost of consumables like tires, brakes, etc.)

        1. Nick M

          I think saying that the cost is only $1-2 per day plus consumables is a significant underestimation. The IRS just raised the mileage reimbursement rate to $0.58/mile. That basically says that your employer has to pay $0.58/mile to use your car at no profit to you.

          So we can pretty quickly say that the 10 mile per day (R/T) commute would be about $6/day without parking. Sure some of that cost is fixed (which is why people who live in households with fewer cars can actually save boatloads of money), but realistically transit fares are already lower than the cost of driving. People just really underestimate 1) how much it actually costs and 2) the value of their time saved vs. money spent.

          1. Brian

            Notice that I said that my incremental cost of driving was less than the cost of bus fare. Not the total cost of driving.

            I buy base model cars brand new and I figure it costs about $500 a month over 10 years just to keep it parked in my garage and never drive it. I figured it cost around $50 a month in additional costs to drive to work which was half the cost of a bus pass. It was also faster to drive than take transit back then.

            My employer started offering Metropass and I moved so it became reasonable to take the bus to work. I figure time wise it is about a wash since the bus can take the shoulder.

          2. Jeb RachJeb Rach

            The $1-$2/each way was assuming gas for a 10-15ish mile commute, which with $2-$2.50 gas prices is probably on the lower end. The only other recurring cost that’s frequent and based roughly on miles driven is oil changes, with other variable expenses being rather hard to mentally tie to any specific trip or miles driven.

            The 58 cents/mile IRS figure is a terrible metric to use for the incremental cost of driving additional miles, as car payments, insurance costs, and overall maintenance costs (not all of which are mileage-based) are included in that figure. However, my auto payment stays the same whether I drive 0 miles or 5,000 miles in a month, and my insurance rate stays roughly the same as well (some insurance providers will discount if you drive significantly less than average, but you have to be able to prove that and may not be immediate.) Those types of cost aren’t easily incurred per-mile, and they make up a large portion of the cost of using a vehicle. If I have to own a vehicle anyways, the cost equation makes it so using it for most trips is the best way to go.

            As for the time equation, if transit takes longer than driving does, then I’m still losing time by taking the bus and essentially “paying with my time.” Sure, I can be more productive per minute on a bus than when driving a vehicle, but a 15-30 minute drive with “dead time” with 30 minutes – an hour of doing whatever I want is arguably a better use of my time than 45 minutes – an hour and a half of time where I can do some things on the bus, but possibly not what I’d want to be doing (spend time with family, make it to another event, relax on my couch, etc.) That time delta is real, and to ignore that or argue that since it’s semi-productive that it’ll easily beat out driving is a way to ignore the real time savings that driving point-to-point currently has.

        2. Brian

          My income during this time (and today still) was much higher than low income so I would not have qualified for any type of fare reduction.

          If the fare was free back then I probably would have endured the crappy buses. It was around $103 for a monthly pass for express rush hour fare at the time. After the ride became 70+ minutes with the route changes they would have needed to pay me to ride the bus.

    2. Ryan Ricard Post author

      This is a really thoughtful critique, and if this were a bill in the legislature I’d be ringing my representatives’ phones off the hook in support.

      That said, I’m still curious about the money we’d save on fare enforcement in a no-fare transit system. Printing Go-To cards, repairing broken fare boxes, hiring cops to check fares on the train – all that stuff costs money somewhere. How low would fares have to go to make it not even worth it to collect them?

      1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

        Admittedly, I’m not sure exactly how much it costs to collect fares, but I’m guessing $50m in revenue would still easily pay for the fares. Cops checking fares likely would still be hired but just be roving patrols on the trains for other violations (smoking, harassment, etc.) Most of the realized savings would be with fare machines and fare boxes – not cheap, but probably not an extremely high number either.

        That said, I really think it’d be hard to get the political will to make transit free for everyone, and that extra political will could be used to expand transit availability across the region and/or upgrade lines. There’s some advantage to moving the conversation in the right direction, but in terms of advocacy work I think it’d be a lot easier to push for free fares for those in need and then additional money for expansion versus free fares for all and less money for expansion (resources are finite, and it’s unlikely that we’d get $150m for transit in a free-fare system but only $100m in a free-fare-for-some system.)

        Ideally, if I had free reign to spend that money and re-do the fare structure, I’d make TAP free and spend a few million in mobilizing resources to get people enrolled. I’d consider expanding it as best fit to make sure money isn’t a barrier to those worst off in our society. For regular fares, I’d make the entire bus and light rail system $2/2.5 hour ride, 2 fares automatically caps for a day, and 32 fares in a rolling 31-day window caps the fare for that 31-day window. I’d also add the ability to pay with contactless credit/debit cards (mainly for visitors) and add Go-To card purchasing at all rail and BRT/aBRT stations. Finally, I’d charge $2/day for parking at a park-and-ride structure, which would be covered with MetroPass at least to start with.

        Finally, with the other extra money let’s roll out $25m worth of aBRT improvements each year, $12.5m to expand frequency in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the other $12.5m to expand local route access in suburban areas. I have some pet projects I’d use it on (make the 223, 225, and 227 bidirectional all day and up frequency to 30 minutes!) but I think that’d be a good starting point.

        1. Betsy Larey

          Why would you charge to park in the park and ride lots? I thought the concept was to get people to take transit and leave cars off of the free way. Charging them is penalizing them. Most can’t walk to the transit stops in bad weather.

          1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

            The idea is to move the “express” fare from charging for the bus ride itself and charging for the parking aspect that most use. A $2/day parking with $4/day parking would amount to $6/day, still cheaper than the current $6.50/day for a round-trip rush hour express fare. There’s a few park-and-rides near local routes, and so they’d be paying $1 more than they do now, but most large park-and-ride structures are near express routes. It could be targeted to just park and rides that are near current express routes; given that most people use them even though the fare is higher, I’d imagine moving where exactly that expense comes out wouldn’t affect ridership significantly. It’d also give an incentive for people to carpool there or take alternate transportation methods to the park-and-ride.

            I’d keep it covered by Metropass/U Pass/College Pass/anything that currently covers express fares, but shifting the mindset from making buses more expensive simply because they have less intermediate stops to making the parking be the additional cost factor, to me, places the cost better to where it belongs.

            Many larger transit agencies charge a couple bucks for park-and-ride use (Chicago and DC immediately come to mind) so I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to start moving in that direction, especially paired with lower fares for the bus portion of the journey.

            1. Brian

              What happens when use of park and rides goes down when the cost goes up? Do park and rides eventually all just go away as ridership declines?

              The problem is that as ridership declines Metro Transit will cut frequency making transit less convenient. More riders quit due to lower frequency until Metro Transit decides to just terminate service completely.

              1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

                If people are willing to pay $6.50/day now to take the bus ($3.25 each way for rush hour fare,) why wouldn’t they pay $6/day to take the bus, including parking costs? For the sake of argument, assume that parking can be paid with a Go-To card and it’s included in any passes that currently include express buses (if the TAP $1 fare doesn’t, let’s allow them to “park for free.”)

                Unless people are extremely irrational, they’ll come in the same (or greater!) numbers than they currently do, since their overall cost is dropping. It might lead to some people carpooling, which saves money on building new park and rides. It also removes some of the cost issues with express routes that serve large non-park-and-ride markets (the 94 is a major one that comes to mind, and the old 675 charged express fares despite serving quite a few non-P&R markets.) If someone’s willing to walk/bike/carpool to a stop, it gives them additional savings, while still keeping costs lower for those that are parking than the current express structure does.

                1. Elizabeth Larey

                  Park and rides should be free. If the goal is to reduce car traffic and congestion, it’s counterproductive to keep raising the price to park you car. People are not biking walking to the park and ride lots. That’s why they built them, so you can park you car. I’ll bet people would just say forget it I might as well drive. This isn’t rocket science

  6. Monte Castleman

    Minnesota voters aren’t stupid. If the gas taxes go up at the same time that public transit is made “free” they’ll make a connection, and aside for possibly the inner cities any proposal that would hurt people have the audacity to make use of one of the best and most convenient aspects of modern life will be looking for a new job the next election. Witness how hard it was to get a gas tax passed even when it was all dedicated to our roads and businesses.

    1. Ryan Ricard Post author

      Well, the last party to propose a gas tax increase (that didn’t pass) took over the state house in the following election. That same election, Tim Walz said he would “increase the gas tax and expand funding for transit and transportation” and he won with an 11% margin. So I don’t necessarily buy your premise that fuel taxes are such a deadly third-rail issue.

      I believe that Minnesotans are smart enough to support a plan that is in their long-term interest if we make the case, and that we can make small sacrifices to scale back our conveniences when we know that those conveniences cause real people to suffer.

    2. Christa MChris Moseng

      If I could reply with pictures I would simply post an image of global temperatures and then an inage of greenhouse gas emissions by sector every time you use a phrase like “one of the best and most convenient aspects of modern life” to describe cars.

      Lots of conveniences are nice. It’s obtuse to think that ends the conversation about their value.

      Being told that it’s a form of privige to be able to ignore the harmful effects of the transportation mode you choose to champion on a blog site about making the places around us better is a the polite, politically correct way of urging you to think a little more deeply about your opinions before you post them. Your feelings are actually being well shielded by the moderation policies here.

      1. Monte Castleman

        And if I could reply with pictures I’d show you a picture of the thermometer yesterday and a Google Map image of how far it would take to ride a bicycle in that weather if I wanted to go to work or visit a friend.

        And yes, I’m sure some commentators would personally attack me if they were allowed to just for wanting to be comfortable and taking advantages of the wonderful inventions science and technology have given us.

        Maybe we should advocate for shutting off the electricity grid too. After all, electricity causes a lot of global warming, and people got along fine with kerosene lamps before electricity was invented just like they got along fine with bicycles and walking before cars were invented.

  7. Kevin

    I’m not opposed to free fares in general, but it probably bears consideration that no other major metro system that I’m aware of employs such a model (correct me if I’m wrong). Even countries far more comfortable with wealth redistribution and far more serious about fighting climate change (Sweden, Norway, France, Germany) have fares in place, often higher than is typical in the U.S. Similarly, even the new metro systems coming on line in oil-rich nations aren’t free, although their governments could easily afford to operate them that way.

    1. Ryan Ricard Post author

      As far as I’m aware, the biggest city in the world with no-fare public transit is Talinn, Estonia. It looks like they are working to expand the fare-free zone to the surrounding counties with the aim of making the entire country fare-free for residents.

      Various American cities have done limited experiments in fare-free transit, but I agree that metro-wide free transit would be a bold move.

      1. Betsy Larey

        I was in Tallin last May. Unfortunately, so were many thousands of tourists from 3 cruise ships. The town is small, and not equipped to handle the influx. I didn’t know transit was free. We easily walked whoever we needed to go. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.

          1. Betsy Larey

            The other city you might want to visit is Gdańsk Poland. We walked everywhere, and there were tons of bikers. A lot of the streets were off limits to cars, which made it a very relaxing place to be

          2. Brian

            A serious question for you. How is it okay to take a plane trip which emits a huge amount of emissions, but it is not okay to drive a car that also has emissions?

            Personally, I have never been outside of North America and the last time I left the USA was in the last 1980s to go just over the border into Canada. I just don’t have any desire to go overseas.

            1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              It’s not. We need to cut down on unnecessary flying too. You can by offsets (whatever that actually does) but mostly flying less is a thing we need to work on too.

              I feel a bit better about it because I drive very little, and I’ve not been flying much lately, and I guess here’s at least an argument that there’s no reasonable alternative to flying, but still.

  8. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

    I’m so glad you made this into a full post, Ryan! Great summary. I’m astonished gas is currently so low.

  9. Brian

    I’m curious how many of you think we should go back to living like we did in the 1850s with most of us on small farms with a horse and never traveling more than a few miles from home?

    If I moved to the city of Minneapolis which is basically the only place with any transit I would be pretty limited in where I could go without a car. It is likely I would be stuck living in an apartment as I would have no way to get materials for home repairs.

    I have a hobby that involves a lot of stuff and going to North Branch once a month. No transit is going to get me there. Sure, there are car rentals, but have you tried to rent a car on the weekend besides the airport? A vehicle large enough would cost $75 to $100 for the day.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I do think we should go back to an era when people walked to get around, for example, walked to go to a café or to buy something at a store or to go to school. Or an era when people took transit a lot, not for every trip (e.g. North Branch), but for many of them. That era could be the 1850s, I guess, but there are lots of more reasonable examples to think about.

      There are kinds of car sharing models you could think about that would allow for monthly hobby use.

      1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

        Yes! Having access to a car doesn’t mean that you have to own a vehicle. As but one example, Hourcar has some trucks and SUVs, and their rates are around $11-12/hr including gas and insurance. Their daily rate on weekends is $80 plus tax (so probably close to $100,) but that does include gas and insurance, so it’s a fully all-in cost for that first 100 miles (which is enough to get to North Branch and back.) Menards and Home Depot also have rent-a-trucks, though I’m not sure how easy it is to rent one if you don’t have existing auto insurance.

        When I was looking to buy a replacement vehicle (we’re a one-car household,) the major reason we got it was because my spouse’s work (in the suburbs at the time) was so transit-light that she’d have to take an Uber/Lyft home a couple times a week. That’s where the expenses added up, not the once or twice a month we calculated that we’d have to rent a car for various things.

        1. Brian

          That $100 to rent a vehicle at least once a month would make me reconsider going since it becomes so much more expensive for a single day.

          It is completely irrational I know because owning a car costs way more than $100. When you own a car most of the cost you spend even if you never drive so the additional costs to drive somewhere are a lot less.

          I went to Menards at least three times in January that required a vehicle to get stuff home. I would have cut out one or two of the trips if I had to rent a vehicle each time and potentially not done the project at all due to the hassle. Menards requires auto insurance to rent their vehicle.

        2. Monte Castleman

          What if your cabin is in Ely instead of North Branch? Do they have a hitch for pulling a boat? What areas do they serve?

          Fact is for most people the outrageous hassle and point of service expense of renting a vehicle, or renting a bigger vehicle than needed for driving alone to work on weekdays means it’s a tough sell.

          Maybe if TaaS comes to pass that will solve a “I need a truck for the weekends” issue. I can even see a vehicle like a small RV like vehicle with bunks that you can rent for the weekend that will drive your family to the Black Hills or Chicago overnight, drive you around the area, and then park itself in someplace like an RV park with showers and lavatories Saturday night so you don’t even need to rent a hotel room.

    2. Julie Kosbab

      Needing a car sometimes shouldn’t mean needing a car for every trip.

      I have a 2014 vehicle, purchased new. Less than 30k miles. Clearly, I drive a car. But not everywhere.

    3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      How about around 1900? Cars existed, were useful for some things, and expensive playthings, but you mostly walked or rode a bike to stuff in your neighborhood, and took transit for longer trips, especially commuting. But upgraded so that if you need to, you can drive your car to Home Depot or North Branch on occasion.

      Home repairs are not a meaningful driver of transportation needs, but even if they were, Home Depot is about a two mile ride from our house, mostly on off-street paths and there are several hardware stores that are closer. I’ve biked to several of them.

      1. Brian

        If I had no vehicle and depended entirely on transit and biking/walking I probably wouldn’t have ever done my most recent project. Sure, I could buy a cargo bike and have hauled home cabinets one at a time, but it still be a huge pain. Hauling home lumber would be a pain. Sure, they have delivery, but paying a $50 delivery fee for $30 worth of lumber is kinda silly.

        I ended up buying some cabinets, taking some back due to my mistake, and then buying more cabinets so it became multiple trips.

  10. Will

    I guess if we need a car for a couple of trips here and there during the month, we shouldn’t even bother encouraging mass transit. It’s all or nothing.

    1. Brian

      Going car light doesn’t really save me much. If I cut my driving in half to 500 miles per month I would save about $100 per month on gas, tires, and such. That $100 per month would be offset by paying $100 a month for a bus pass unless fares became free.

      Going car-free is what really saves money, but it alsmakes going anywhere very inconvenient to the point I probably wouldn’t leave my neighborhood except to go to work. A 10 minute drive by car can easily become 20 to 30 minutes by bus.

        1. Elizabeth Larey

          Why doesn’t anyone talk about hybrid/electric cars. My Volvo dealer siad they were going all electric next year. I couldn’t live without a car, and I can’t wat until an electric with a long distance battery is available.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Electric plus renewable energy solves most of the pollution issues. It does not solve the space issues (cars are incredible space intensive way to get around) or offer the benefits of active transportation or financial savings.

        2. Brian

          Would you care to share those benefits with me? All I see are downfalls of going car light or car free.

          Getting anywhere take much longer walking or transit. I certainly could walk five miles to my destination, but it take more than an hour each way. Transit doesn’t take an hour, but it means waiting until the next bus comes and wait again to transfer to another bus to get to the destination.

          My employer has a location in downtown Minneapolis and one in the North Loop. I occasionally have to go from downtown to the North Loop. I take the bus downtown so I walk or ride a bus between the two locations. Bus runs every 30 minutes so sometimes I am stuck at North Loop an extra 20 to 30 minutes. I missed the bus in downtown by 30 seconds earlier this winter. I ended up walking to the North Loop in 10 degree weather and man was I cold when I got there. (I had proper winter gear.)

          If I didn’t have a car it is likely I would only leave home to go to work or get groceries. It would be so difficult to get anywhere else I just wouldn’t go.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            For one, you’re not contributing to the very real threat to human life on this planet.

            Another is you get to be active in your transportation and partially offset the ill effects of modern sedentary lifestyles.

            Another is that you shop closer to home and support loca l businesses.

            These things are hard to get in a world designed solely for transport by car (called the suburbs) but they are doable in a city.

      1. Brian

        I read the article and noticed it said that Toronto is still going to have to do major infrastructure projects.

        I’m all for spending large sums of money on bike infrastructure, but we need to figure out a way that doesn’t cause pain for other road users.

        There are plenty of downtown Minneapolis streets that become total gridlock when a lane is closed for whatever reason, I have only driven downtown twice in the past year, but sometimes the buses I ride are blocked by cars in the intersection. It is illegal to block an intersection, but that doesn’t stop drivers from driving into the intersection after waiting through several light cycles to get through.

          1. Brian

            Can you explain how total gridlock is maximizing car traffic?

            Traffic was a disaster during Superbowl last year due to closed lanes and closed streets. A co-worker during Superbowl was getting off his bus at US Bank Stadium and walking the rest of the way as the bus was taking 45 minutes to get half way across downtown.

            More permanent lane closures to build bike lanes will just make things worse. I’m not against bike lanes as long as they don’t make auto and bus traffic into gridlock.

            Today’s bus system to downtown just doesn’t work for a lot of people. Parents worry about getting home in case of emergencies with kids. Sometimes they have to be at school for some activity during the day so rush hour bus doesn’t work. I think the only way you will convince more to switch to buses is to offer trips on every route at least once per hour until 8 pm. Some routes could be combined during the day to cut expenses. There is the emergency ride home program, but I suspect a lot of folks just don’t want to use it.

            My employer has many salespeople who come and go to clients regularly so they need cars. (They really should just work remotely for the most part.)

            This will all be a moot point once Minneapolis bans cars from downtown or institutes congestion charging like London. It is just a matter of time. London has seen a 25% decline in vehicles in the congestion zone, but congestion has stayed about the same due to adding bus and protected bike lanes.

  11. Michael B

    I’m tired of subsidizing car driving through my taxes and disportionately causing transit to be at a disadvantage.

    1. Brian

      I’m curious if you would be in favor of getting rid of all streets and roads in your city and county paid for by property taxes?

      That would mean no more school buses, no more emergency services, no more deliveries except mail, no more repair of electric lines and other utilities. It would mean an end to new construction and major remodeling as materials couldn’t be delivered and workers usually have more tools than fit on a bike or transit.

      Transit buses could still run on state funded roads, but that would limit the number of routes.

    1. Betsy Larey

      People who live in the suburbs and outlying communities have to drive. Try looking up what transit is like from those areas. Its close to non existent. Some would have to walk miles to get to a stop. My friends in NY do not have cars, but they have lots of transit. Because it was built a long time ago. Twin Cities is far to spread out to make transit convenient. And if it’s not people wont take it. And that is simply a fact.
      We need a gas tax increase, to fix existing roads and bridges.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Betsy, no, they don’t need to drive for every trip, but many can’t be bothered to spend any effort trying not to. Everyone has car trips they can cut out. (Walker Angel writes on these pages about mostly biking in Shoreview). And if that’s too hard, they can drive less by shopping closer to home or work. They just don’t have any incentive to.

        But yes, we made a huge mistake allowing development that was car dependent.

        1. Brian

          There is pretty much no shopping trip I can do that would be safe on a bike right now. The closest grocery store is eight miles. It is quite dangerous to ride a bike on that road until wide shoulders are finished this summer. The suburb I live in has no grocery store at all other than a few convenience stores.

          I normally do my shopping on my way home from the park and ride so I don’t have to drive that eight miles.

          I would prefer to live closer in, but zoning rules enacted in many suburbs in the past 15 years pushed me out pretty far.

            1. Brian

              I spent months doing researching a place to live. I visited city websites, made calls to cities all over, and visited city halls in person to try to find a city that would allow me to build a garage large enough to house a vehicle I own.

              Yes, I made a choice to live where I do. If I could live closer in and still build a large garage I would.

              I support a higher gas tax even though a significant portion of my driving is not on state highways.

              1. Monte Castleman

                People that need to store more than 3 or so cars, people that need to store a boat or RV etc it’s probably best that they live farther out since properties closer in typically can’t readily accommodate those types of vehicles. From my point of view street parking should be more so short term parking for shopping or parties as opposed to long term permanent overflow if you don’t have a big enough garage and driveway.

                A while back in Bloomington there was a trend to build truly monster garages, in some cases larger than the original house. While some city council members were sympathetic as some of the applicants had slab foundations= no basement to put your junk, ultimately they decided to put the kibosh on them. Not just due to the aesthetic issues with the neighbors having to live next to a huge hulking building (sound familiar?) but although the applicants pretty pleased promised they would never even think about having an unlicensed auto repair business, that would be difficult to enforce and whoever bought the house might do it.

                Then we had an issue with RV variances, the city finally said “no more”. These required a large amount of staff time due to the volume relative to other variance requests, and you had situation where neighbors felt they were coerced into supporting it, or alternatively the applicants felt that neighbors were opposed to it for reasons other than the merits of the application itself.

                Not every property any distance from the city can meet the needs of everyone. There might not be any property that meets your needs a reasonable distance from where you work.

                1. Julie Kosbab

                  I’ll quote my daughter here: “Is it a need, or a want?”

                  Boats and RVs tend to be wants, particularly in the sense that storing them at a SFH is likely not a business.

                  1. Monte Castleman

                    When it comes down to it, the only thing you really “need” is a a cot in a shared room, the cheapest, lowest carbon possible food that still meets nutritional needs, the cheapest clothes possible to keep warm and modest, and medical care.

                    Since anything else it technically a “want”- your own room or your own house, nicer food like meat, nice clothes, children, cars, all of which have various externalities, costs to society, and carbon impacts. it gets entirely to subjective classify anything as a “need” vs “want”.

                    I don’t have kids and I don’t have a boat, but I don’t go judging people that have them, and in turn I don’t want to be judged for having a car and a single family house. After all I realize I live in society where costs (both direct and externatlities) are shared around.

  12. Andrew Evans

    Dunno, IMO self driving cars and electric vehicles, along with high mileage vehicles will be the norm soon. So although it may help bumping the tax up, and more than likely should be done anyway, it will have diminishing returns as the fleet of cars turns over. If anything the poor would get hit the most, as they would be the ones driving older cars, but it’s not like the talk (in the real world, didn’t read most comments here) is anything huge. We’re not going to be Europe any time soon with $8 gas prices. However, even then, when my partner and I were in France late last year and drove around 1000 miles, the gas wasn’t that bad since our car got 40ish mpg city, tolls were about as expensive in places as gas.

    So I’m not sure its’ time yet to abandon talk about raising it, there IMO still should be another 10 years of good driving left, at least. It may be the time to start to look at alternatives to the gas tax so they are ready after 10 years when gas usage starts to decline.

    I can’t really take a bus to work, and/or wouldn’t be able to support the places I go after work (YMCA, a few pubs nearby, any shopping) if I were taking public transit. It also wouldn’t save me all that much money when driving the Jetta, and maybe $500 a year driving the 911. If I were working downtown and had to pay for parking that’s a different deal.

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