Eagle County wants to create a new regional transit district and double the current transit sales tax to pay for it. There are no good reasons for voters to support this measure and several reasons for them to vote “no.”
The pandemic has dramatically changed how Coloradans live and work. The share of Colorado employees working at home has tripled. Jobs and residences have moved to less concentrated areas. People say they will continue to social distance even after the pandemic is over.
All of these things have had a disproportionate effect on transit. While the increase in telecommuting reduced the number of people driving to work by 15 percent, it reduced the number taking transit by 59 percent.
Transit agencies’ solution to this decline in ridership is the same as their solution to every other problem: give them more money. Yet increasing funding for transit hasn’t had much success in the past.
Even before the pandemic, Colorado transit used more energy and emitted more greenhouse gases per passenger-mile than the average automobile. Even electric transit is environmentally unsound because Colorado gets most of its electricity from burning fossil fuels. For example, Denver’s electric-powered light-rail lines use more energy and the power plants that generate that electricity emit more greenhouse gases per passenger-mile than the average sports-utility vehicle.
Transit actually does low-income people more harm than good. In 2019, less than 4 percent of low-income Coloradans took transit to work, and the share is even smaller today. Since sales taxes are regressive, that means that 96 percent of low-income Colorado families disproportionately pay taxes for rides they don’t take.
Nor does spending more money on transit relieve congestion. Between 2000 and 2019, Denver spent more than $9 billion improving transit service. Yet the share of Denver-area workers taking transit to work remained stagnant at 4.8 percent through 2019 and fell to 1.9 percent in 2021.
Transit’s problem is that it is obsolete. Automobiles are faster, more convenient, and far less expensive. In 2019, taxpayers spent more than $7 for each transit rider in Eagle County, increasing to more than $10 in 2020. Yes, highways are subsidized too, and we should end those subsidies, but highway subsidies average only about a penny per passenger-mile, compared with more than $2 for transit.
Transit could reinvent itself to work better in the 21st century, but it has no incentive to do so as long as it gets huge subsidies from taxpayers. In 2019, 79 percent of the cost of Eagle County transit came from taxpayers, increasing to 88 percent in 2020. More subsidies to transit won’t result in better transit; it will just make it more expensive.
A vote for the proposed Eagle Valley Transportation Authority is a vote for government waste, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and inequitable taxation. Eagle County voters should be wary of promises that can never be kept.
Randal O’Toole is the director of the Independence Institute’s Transportation Policy Center and author of Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need.
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