Come on ride the train: hike gas taxes, fix WMATA

By:
10/15/2009

The summer of 2008 was a fantastic time for those in D.C. who often gaze wistfully at efficient and popular public transportation systems of European cities. It seemed as though overseas attitudes––such as how public transportation is better for the environment, cheaper, and even more enjoyable than being stuck in traffic for hours a day––had finally started to inch their way into the American, car-adoring mindset.  From April to July of that year, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority set 15 of its 20 highest daily ridership records on Metrorail, as people began to change their daily habits as a result of the spike in gas prices.
As gas prices fell, so did he number of those willing to take the train or bus to move around the city. Last Thursday, WMATA predicted that based on July and August data, ridership revenue will decrease by $22.4 million in 2010, which will necessitate cuts from existing services in the coming months.
Instead of trying to squeeze off sections of bus routes or increase the time between Metro trains,     WMATA and the city itself should try a more radical approach: place higher taxes on gas sold in the Metro Area, and use the profits to expand service and upgrade its trains and buses.
In July of this year, the D.C. Council increased the gas tax––from 20 to 23.5 cents per gallon. This insignificant increase, which was approved to patch holes in the city’s budget, won’t cause people to change their routines in any meaningful way. But if the city and respective state governments could create a dedicated tax––whose funds go to the improvement of Metro service and a dramatic upgrade of its infrastructure––which could rise incrementally up to a few dollars per gallon, people would choose to take the train to work instead of wasting gallons of gas by driving in cars by themselves. It is imperative that Virginia and Maryland governments make the same tax increases, seeing as most drivers purchase their gas out of the district’s geographical area.
Raising taxes (especially on such a beloved status symbol) would surely cause outrage and opposition, but D.C. might just be progressive enough to accept the greater good it would do. A nationwide application of such a tax would be unthinkable––many suburbs and small towns developed around the idea that gas will be cheap forever and we should drive our cars everywhere—to the point that simple public transportation infrastructure doesn’t exist. Here in D.C. though, it does, and as last summer proved, people can convert to using mass transit if just given enough economic incentive.
In presenting the budget shortfall, Metro pointed to two other main causes along with the decrease in gas prices: rising unemployment and the Red Line crash in June that killed nine people.  The Metrorail crash was horrific and terribly sad; yet train travel is still incredibly safer than automobiles, which cause approximately 40,000 deaths per year in the U.S.  Even though unemployment numbers account for a decrease in ridership, shouldn’t wage freezes and other similar belt-tightening measures be putting more people on the Metro?  Clearly the root of the problem lies with the American mindset: the country needs to completely reconsider the way it thinks about moving large crowds of people, and the capital city is uniquely poised to set a nationwide example.
A few weeks ago, when budget concerns nearly lopped off the Wisconsin Avenue section of the Circulator bus route, Georgetown residents (not usually known for their affection for mass transit) grumbled loudly enough for Mayor Adrian Fenty to save the route. The same fairy-tale ending can’t happen for every proposed budget cut––at some point, money has to be found, no matter the public protestations. The usual standard of cutting public transit and allowing more SUVs to clog the highway has to be stopped. The District and WMATA should get to work to increase Metro revenue and ridership while in effect making the city less environmentally-harmful.

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Sara Carothers


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