A lot of El Paso buses are going from stop to stop empty these days.
Sun Metro, El Paso’s bus service, is facing a sharp decline in ridership and revenue. It was carrying only 26 bus passengers an hour on its 75 routes before COVID-19 arrived, and ridership has now fallen below 10 passengers an hour.
That was one of the troubling statistics that Sun Metro’s managing director, Ellen Smyth, delivered to City Council earlier this month, along with a warning that she intends to ask for increases in fares that haven’t been raised in years.
. . .
Smyth is going to propose raising rates and wages, but looking down the road, she said, 105 buses need to be replaced at $700,000 each along with 75 Lift shuttle buses at $100,000 each.
Public transportation isn’t exactly my field of expertise, but, having recently retired from my dual careers of rocket scientist and brain surgeon, I feel that maybe I can add a little to this discussion.
If the buses are mostly empty, can’t we get by with smaller buses? Like, couldn’t we replace a $700,000 bus with a mess of 12 passenger vans? $700,000 can buy a dozen vans. Maybe more.
In much of Latin America, public transportation often runs on collectivos, little four door subcompacts that run when they’re full. Passengers go to the collectivo collection point and wait till they get three or four passengers and then the full sedan takes off on its fixed route.
And they fill up pretty quick. A collectivo might leave the pick up point every ten minutes.
Collectivos could replace some of the less popular routes, or run at the less trafficked times of day.
[Ms. Smyth will] soon be asking the council to raise fixed-route fares from $1.50 to $2 and Lift ride fares from $2.50 to $4.
A better idea might be to raise the fares to $100 a ride, because, you know, you want the buses to exude an air of exclusivity. Add leather seats, and complementary champagne. It’s a well-known economic principle that the more something costs, the more people will buy. And at a hundred bucks a pop, the money piles up pretty quick.
And then there’s this quote from the story:
Currently, Sun Metro has 108 buses and six streetcars running during peak hours along with 11 terminals and a new Eastside terminal coming soon.
City Manager Tommy Gonzalez has a different solution. More taxes.
After Smyth began her presentation to City Council on March 2, City Manager Tommy Gonzalez interrupted her to remind council members that while other Texas cities have a full penny sales tax to subsidize their mass transportation systems, El Paso gets half a penny.
The revenue loss, he said, amounts to about $41 million a year.
The city only gets income from a half-cent sales tax for mass transit because in the 1980s, El Paso County claimed the unused half-cent of sales tax available to local governments, which can assess up to 2% of the 8.25% that Texas allows on purchases and services.
“She’s talking about cost recovery and a system that does not pay for itself,” Gonzalez said, noting that the smaller city of Grand Prairie, Texas, hauls in $80 million a year from that half cent that they spend on economic development.
The city has asked El Paso’s state legislators to draft, support and pass a bill during the current session of the Texas Legislature that would allow the city to ask local voters to approve an extra half-cent sales tax for the city’s use.
Currently, El Paso has the highest sales tax allowed by law in Texas. I think that limit is dictated by the Texas State Constitution, but changing the constitution in Texas isn’t unusual.
Mr. Gonzalez rarely sees a problem that can’t be solved by a tax increase. On the other hand, tax incentives and abatements are one of the most commonly used tools in the City’s economic development tool box.
City Council loves tax increases, and tax breaks for the wealthy.
Isn’t it a paradox how, with El Paso’s taxpayers having the highest tax rates in the country, and tax increases every year, the City’s billion dollar budget still doesn’t cover money for basic city services, like roads and libraries and public transportation?
Curious, isn’t it?