Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Kind of political post time

Normally I would post something about my running adventures, but I really haven’t had any lately.  I’ve spent most of January indoors on the treadmill.  Yeah, I’m a cold weather weenie at heart.  Instead I thought I post a little something for people to think about.  Maybe get a little dialog going.
Meanwhile, here are my running numbers for the month. 
Miles ran – 173, not as many as last year (200), but given the weather, not too bad.
Ahhh, the lovely inversion we had a couple of weeks ago is now gone, but another one is building.  Hopefully this one won’t be as bad.
One of the things I’ve noticed with this inversion is the great hue and cry throughout the local area for Governor Herbert to “do something about this smog”.   So my question is, what the hell is the Governor going to do?  Let’s see, he could ask everyone to ride mass transit.  Yeah, that’ll work.  He could ban cars from downtown SLC.  Yeah, that’ll work just about as well. 
Arguably, cars are the largest single point source of pollution here in the Salt Lake Valley (57%).  I did a little research and wasn’t able to come up with hard figures for everything, but here goes.  The combined population of Utah, Salt Lake, Davis, and Weber counties is 2.13 million (2012 est.).  I couldn’t find out how many cars are registered by county in the state, so I’m estimating that there is one vehicle per person here.  That makes 2.13 million vehicles trolling the highways and byways most every day.  Most of these cars emit much less pollution than cars of even 5-10 years ago.  Still, 2.13 million clean running vehicles still will emit a lot of dirty air, especially when concentrated in an area 15 miles wide by 75 miles long.
So, disregarding the relevant politics of this fair state, what are some options for reducing the number of vehicles on the roads by an amount significant enough to make the air clearer.  By the way, I have no idea how many cars that would be, but for the sake of argument, let’s say one third.  So reduce the number of cars on the roads by 700,000 on a daily basis.
How do we get all of these people out of their cars.  I know, let’s have the Governor tell everyone to not drive and take mass transit.  Nope, that ain’t gonna happen.
What I have found and learned over the years is that people will respond in a big way to money incentives.  Either negative (hits you in the wallet), or positive (puts money in your wallet).  Look at what happened when the price of gas hit $4.50 a couple years ago.  Ridership on Frontrunner and buses went way up.  When gas prices came back down, ridership went down.  If the economic incentive is great enough, people will put up with the inconvenience of riding mass transit.
I can only use myself as an example, but a previous employer of mine purchased premium UTA passes for every employee then sold them to the employees for a whopping $100/year.  These passes were good on Frontrunner, express buses, local buses, TRAX, anything UTA had on wheels.  Now it costs me a lot more than $100/year to drive my car back and forth to work.  I track it and on average, my car costs me $155.00 a month in gas alone.  Couple that with car insurance (maybe $60/month, I’m a safe driver), plus oil changes, repairs etc. at about $100/month, and you have over $300/ to operate my car.  Now I really can’t include costs other than gas, because I would still own a car regardless.  So, gas costs are my driving factor to decide whether I switch to mass transit.
Now I did buy one of those passes, and I used it pretty religiously.  I discoverd that I could walk to the bus stop .3 miles from my house, catch the bus, it would take me to the train station, I would climb on the train for the 15 minute ride from Ogden to Clearfield, get off, then take the bus from the train station that went through the Freeport Center.  Actually, it was pretty convenient as far as mass transit goes.  However, it would take me about 45 minutes to get to work every day.  If I decided to run to the train station, then to work, then reverse, we’re talking about 90 minutes each way (added bonus, I got a 13 mile run in by doing that).  Contrast that with the 20 minute commute in my car.
Once the company quit buying the passes, I quit riding the train unless I wanted to get a 13 mile run in.  Why?  Because a regular monthly pass would cost me $189.  So, would I pay $189/month for the privilege of at least doubling my commute time?  Nope, not worth it to me, and I would imagine that most people feel the same way.  Besides, I can’t do errands on the way home when I ride the train or bus.  Additionally, traffic on the freeway at 6:30am through the Ogden area isn’t bad at all.  Moves right along at the speed limit.
So, what are some economic incentives that might get a significant number of people to use mass transit.
Motor fuel tax – Currently the state collects $0.245 for every gallon sold in the state.  This tax pays not only for mass transit, but upkeep on the roads as well.  This tax generated $252.5 million in 2012, or about $88/person, young or old.  Let’s jack it up to $1/gallon.  Would that get you out of your car?  What about people in very remote parts of the state that need to drive long distances to even get to a store?  What about poor people that can barely afford gas for their cars now?  Jacking the motor fuel tax up that high would generate an additional $750 million a year that could be allocated for mass transit, purchasing more buses, building more train tracks, etc.  Guess what, it wouldn’t generate that much because a certain percentage of the population would migrate to mass transit as a way to avoid that.  But that’s what we want.  Then there’s the politics in this state.  Do you think someone living in say, Boulder, Utah wants to see their gas tax go up just so us idiots in SLC won’t drive as much?  Yeah, didn’t think so.
Sales tax – Currently Utah (0.8%), Salt Lake (0.8%), Davis (0.5%), and Weber (0.75%) collect a sales tax that is directly used for public transportation.  I have no idea how much this generates, but I can make a somewhat educated guess.  The state sales tax (4.7%)  generated $1.601 billion in 2012.  That works out to $556 for every man, woman, and child in the state.  My math (weird though it may be) says that’s $118.30 per percentage point per person.  So, doing the math says that the good people of Utah and Salt Lake counties paid $94.64/person for mass transit, Davis county residents paid a paltry $59.50 per person, and Weber county folks paid $88.73 each.  Keep in mind this is per person.  So Mom and Dad paid up for their brood of six or seven kids ($94.64 x 8 = $757.12, that’s some more serious coin).  All told, my math shows that the 2.13 million people living along the Wasatch Front generated roughly $188.9 million in 2012 to be used for mass transit purposes.  Sounds like a crapload of money.
So, in order to be fair, let’s increase the mass transit sales tax only in these counties.  What should we jack it up to?  Let’s say a straight 1.5%.  That would generate around $378 million annually for mass transit.  Hopefully.
So, with all that extra money, what will it get us?  Well, a new CNG powered bus (don’t want a diesel one, they really throw out the stink) costs roughly $330 thousand.  It costs roughly $125/hour to operate.  Figure 16 hours a day, seven days a week (yeah, we want people out of their cars then too) and you have a cool $730 thousand a year to operate….per bus.  So, an extra $189 million would get us an extra 258 buses on the road.  And that doesn’t include the cost of the buses.  We’ll let the feds pay for those.  Oh wait, now our federal taxes will go up.  Not so many now.  I don’t know how many buses UTA operates, but I’m sure it’s well over 258 buses, so we won’t even double the number of buses on the road, let alone increase the number and frequency of routes.  Now the number would probably be higher, since fares will offset some of this operating costs.   But we haven’t even talked about fares yet.
You can do the math, but the point is, would increasing the sales tax by roughly 0.8% to get more buses and trains out there get you out of your car?  No?  What about increasing it to 2%?  3%?  Probably wouldn’t get me out of my car but then I don’t have kids at home anymore and I can afford the extra and still drive my car.  At what point would it hurt someone like me enough to get me out of my car one third of the time?  I don’t know, but it would certainly be more than the good citizens of this state are willing to put up with.  Let alone the having the legislature even entertain the idea.  Why increasing the sales tax that much would hurt all sorts of people.  Poor people, car salespeople, retail people.  Think of all the coffee that wouldn’t get sold at Maverick or 7-11 every morning.  Rest assured, we would buy less of everything, but at least we’d be riding mass transit.

Next blog post, I’ll talk about some more options and the pros and cons of those.  Actually, the next post should probably be my Moab Red Hot race report.  Especially since I have most of it written.

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