Making Fare-Free Buses in La Crosse Permanent

By Peter Gorski

Although you probably haven’t heard about it, the city of La Crosse quietly waived all bus fares for the remainder of 2020 in late September. The move is being advertised as a way to keep bus drivers safe, as cash and token transactions between passengers and drivers can increase the spread of Covid-19.

The City of La Crosse MTU received over $6 million in CARES funding to help keep the service running during the pandemic, a small part of which can be used to cover the fares revenue. The MTU intends to use the CARES act funds over the next three years to offset lost revenue and pay for increased expenditures due to Covid-19 measures.

Over 40 cities in the United States currently provide fare-free public transport for some or all of their public transit systems. These cities list populations ranging from a few thousand to over 200,000, making La Crosse an ideal candidate based on these successes. Let’s take a look at what it would cost, and how the city could secure long-term funding for this service.

Crunching The Numbers

Looking at the 2018, 2019, and 2020 city operating budgets, income from bus fares covers about 10% of the operating budget for the MTU. The budget typically comes in between 6 and 7 million dollars, with fares accounting for $610,000 in 2018,  $440,000 in 2019, and an original projection of $640,000 for 2020. This clocks in at less than 1% of the city’s operating budget, which has been somewhere in the $70 million range for several years.

La Crosse currently runs six parking ramps in the city, totaling about 4,300 parking spots. 2018 income from ramps was $1.06 million. 2019 came in at $960,000, and despite the pandemic 2020 has earnings of $630,000 through the first three quarters of the year.

The parking ramps offer three free hours of parking from 6 am to 6 pm on weekdays. Residents running downtown for a few errands can easily find two hour street parking or get their business done within the three hour limits. The majority of parking ramp income comes from permit sales, with pay station fees accounting for less than 10% of income in 2018, about 30% in 2019, and again clocking in under 10% in 2020, according to public records.

Permit drivers are likely to be employees commuting downtown to work, paying the cheaper permit fee to park there all day and return home. Monthly permits are $40 for city residents, and $50 for non-residents. Increasing rates for these permits to $65 and $85 respectively would provide enough revenue to make all public buses fare-free in La Crosse. The increase in the permits would be roughly equal to the amount the city budgeted in ticket revenue for the buses in 2020.

Many employees who work in the city choose to commute from one of several towns in the surrounding area, where they pay lower taxes and don’t pay into the various city resources that they benefit from, like the parking ramps we build, the police force that keeps them safe returning to their cars late at night, and the infrastructure that the businesses they work at depend on. The non-resident permit rate is only around 5% of total sales from the last three years, as employees can buy permits through their employer, which gives them the resident rate if the employer pays city taxes.

The Riverside parking ramp is currently completely free to park in as well, with a maximum time of 12 hours. The ramp was paid for by LHI and built in 2010, with an agreement to have it be free of charge for 15 years. This ramp provides ample free parking for LHI employees and is open to anyone. When this agreement expires in 2025, the city will have an opportunity to greatly increase parking ramp revenue, especially from non-residents commuting into town. A 2012 estimate listed only 45% of LHI employees as city residents, with 75% living in La Crosse county.

To offset unnecessary burden on low wage employees who need to drive in to work, the city offers discounted permits for anyone making under $1,345 monthly.

The city spends millions on upkeep of highways and roads. Decreasing car volume (as a result of an improved, fare-free bus system) would help this infrastructure last longer and save the city significant sums on maintenance and repairs in the long term. There would also be small savings to the city by abolishing bus fares, as costs associated with the ticketing system would be eliminated. Ultimately, between smarter parking fee policy and the savings on infrastructure, city-wide, comprehensive free public transit can pay for itself.

Beyond The Bottom Line

Less cars on the road means less pollution and less noise. The city made a pledge to be at 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Public transit is a key part of a sustainable system and achieving a carbon neutral society. According to the American Public Transportation Association, switching to public transit would reduce the carbon footprint of a typical household by about 30% and is the single biggest change an individual can make to have an impact. Public transit would also give us quieter streets for relaxing walks and bike rides.

While the city needs to ensure that low wage earners can still afford to drive for those that find it absolutely necessary, a robust free public transit system is a far better alternative. This system would come at no additional cost to these people and provide them with safe, reliable transit to their jobs. The working poor, who made up half of La Crosse residents in a 2020 ALICE report, are often one missed paycheck, one dead car battery, or one blown tire away from losing their housing or their job. The cost of maintaining a car is in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars annually. Shifting our city to a robust public transit system would be a tremendous benefit to low-income individuals and families in our city, and funding it through the parking ramps would ensure that no additional tax burden would fall on La Crosse residents.

The intangible benefits of a public transit system are hard to quantify, but should not be overlooked. It’s hard to imagine a world where almost no private citizens need to own a vehicle. But the amount of space that our cars take up is often underestimated. In a system with a comprehensive bus line system, and on-demand private transportation from cabs and rideshare services, our residential streets could be emptied of parked cars. For those that do still find it necessary to drive, traffic would be drastically reduced, along with the risk of accidents and injury.

In our current pandemic, another benefit that can be imagined is the potential to strengthen local communities. Riding the bus is a public activity. People take the same routes regularly and inevitably start to notice those who are typically riding with them. Getting to know your neighbors who ride to work, as well as encountering people from other areas you wouldn’t normally bump into every week, will result in building up ties that have no chance of forming when we are atomized in our individual cars. Riding the bus also gives passengers a chance to read, chat with their friends online, or catch a few minutes of rest – all of which are activities a driver can’t do as they focus on the road.

In early 2020 the country of Luxembourg made all public transit free. While a small nation like Luxembourg is much easier to connect, the United States should strive to make robust, fare-free public transit a national priority. A nationwide project like a comprehensive bus and rail system would create millions of jobs, connect families with their loved ones, reduce the country’s carbon footprint, and give working people more leisure time and money. The challenges the world is facing are the largest in human history. As a country, we need to start dreaming of ideas that match the scale of those challenges.

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