The Bus Stops Here: For a Fair Fare

Metro is proposing a significant fare hike. That is unwise, one more way to disinvest rather than invest in our central city and its people.

Everyone is encouraged to let Madison’s Metro Transit and/or the city’s Transit and Parking Commission know what you think. The best way is to testify at the Public Hearing on May 11 at 6:00 pm at Monona Terrace in Meeting Rooms MNQR. Less preferably, but still of considerable value, is to email Metro or send a letter to Metro Transit Public Hearing Comments, 1245 E. Washington Ave., Suite 201, Madison, WI 53703.

In a clear display of ambivalence toward social justice, sustainability, and the role of the public in the economic sector, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin’s approach to “fiscal responsibility” is telling City agencies to cut their budgets even as he gives away $20-$50 million in public money to private developers to construct underground car parking stalls downtown.

Those cuts reduce city services and force Metro Transit to propose raising bus fares. The adult and senior/disabled 31-day bus passes will have increased more than 43 percent since 2009 if the current fare proposal gets enacted. So who is paying, and for what?

(Yvonne Schwinge/Madison Area Bus Advocates)(Yvonne Schwinge/Madison Area Bus Advocates)

Designing a budget could be a time to enhance certain things (such as public transit and economic development) while limiting other things (such as adding street lanes, maintaining overly large arterial roadways and subsidizing suburban growth). 

Less imaginative is a simple across-the-board cut that keeps outmoded biases. Unfortunately, that appears to be what Soglin, with Common Council consent, is doing.

At the same time, Soglin has committed millions of dollars toward a $35 million addition to Metro Transit’s current storage facility, postponing needed street work as a result. 

And he has proposed funding such important social initiatives as an affordable housing program to the tune of $20 million over five years. Only that program depends on the availability of more than hourly weekend public transportation, something that is largely nonexistent now but does not require Metro having more storage space.

This is not the first time Soglin’s budgeting has pushed Metro Transit to propose a fare increase since his return to office in 2011. His first budget prompted a fare-hike proposal for 2012 that was subsequently dropped only to be brought back with a vengeance the next year. The 2012 proposal left cash fares unchanged. The 2013 proposal would have hiked them substantially.

Fortunately, most of the proposed increases in 2013 were quashed because the Council rejected Soglin’s proposed budget. Soglin called that irresponsible. Do you agree? Then, a much smaller increase was again proposed in 2014. Again, it was dropped.

This time however, a fare increase was included in the City’s 2016 Executive Budget and approved by the Common Council. That puts tremendous pressure on the Transit and Parking Commission to approve the hikes.  It does not have to technically, as the council passes the budget but the Transit and Parking Commission, not the council, sets the fares (except under exceptional circumstances)

There are alternative ways to finance outstanding costs other than through a fare hike of course, but those options are limited.  As it is, half the additional money needed would come from Metro’s contingency fund, a fund that some are calling quite bloated and able to rather comfortably cover the entire amount.

Drawing on the contingency fund for the entire amount is indeed something to consider as that fund is benefitting from having locked in low fuel costs, a benefit that could be passed on to consumers. Furthermore, although the budget included pay increases to Metro and other City employees, people on retirement or disability Social Security have not received any increase for the last several years.

And there is always the possibility, not unheard of, that the council amends the budget.

Although most proposed fare increases for 2013 were dropped, fares increased for adult and senior/disabled 31-day passes, the Commute Card and Paratransit rides. There was talk then of “transportation equity,” and the issue may play a major role in upcoming fare deliberations.

The amount of the cash fare has received the most attention in equity discussions since people may not have more at any one time, certainly not enough for a whole 31 days.  So it may come as some surprise that in 2014 Metro determined that five types of fare were disproportionately used by low income riders or people of color: 1) cash, 2) 31-day pass, 3) 31-day senior/disabled pass; 4) low income pass; and 5) EZ Rider pass. 

It developed a policy, approved by the Transit and Parking Commission, that “... these particular fares are not increased by more than 5 percent compared to others.” That prompted the following calculations for the proposed changes between early 2009 and September 1, 2016:


As the increase in cash fares occurred in only one step whereas the increase in cost of the 31-day passes would occur in two, the overall change is not immediately apparent.  But for the entire span, the percentage increases would not only be inequitable among all fare categories, but they would be inequitable among the five special equity-related fare categories as well.

Of the five equity-related categories, the proposed percentile raise to both the regular and senior/disabled 31-day passes would be considerably more than to the cash fares.

The preference of course would be for all bus fares to be lowered rather than raised or even kept the same. There are sound economic as well as justice, health, environmental and sustainability reasons to encourage rather than discourage public transit. But at the very least, we should see more fairness among the equity-related fares.