“Fare Free” Rochester Public Transit

Yesterday I asked leaders from Mayo Clinic, DMC, Olmsted County, and the City of Rochester to help make Rochester Public Transit “Fare Free” starting on July 1st, meaning anyone could just ride the bus without paying a fare. My goal would be to pilot the concept from July to December. I believe that operational savings, cost avoidance and increased State & Federal support would make this largely cost neutral to Rochester tax payers.

Recently Kansas City (Missouri, not Kansas) made national news by announcing that its public transit would be free to use. Obviously it is not free because it still needs to be paid for, but users do not need to pay a fare to ride. I believe that this makes sense for Rochester and would honestly not be that hard to accomplish.

Note: This post is a work in progress and will be updated as I get additional information.

Background

Starting about the time of DMC, Rochester got more serious about having a serious transit system and not just an employee shuttle for people working downtown. We took back full control of our transit system and put its operations out for bid, saving tax payers a ton of money. We also adopted a 5 year plan to significantly increase transit times, reach, and frequency. While portions of the plan were delayed, it will be largely implemented this year.

https://www.votewojcik.org/blog/2017/04/30/5-year-transit-plan-update/

This very cool tool can help you see what transit routes and times will look like in 2020. Interactive Transit Map

Funding

I have a number of questions I have asked city because I want to arrive at a “number” to do the 6 month pilot as quickly as possible. When in comes to transit the majority of funding comes from Federal & State sources. The reminder comes from fares, advertising, and local tax levy. Traditionally we have not put local tax levy dollars into transit. Our fare box (or percentage of support coming from fares) is among the highest and most successful in the nation, but is almost all Mayo Clinic.

There are a couple of unique factors that would make this easier, cheaper and smarter for Rochester. First the Mayo clinic pays for (directly or indirectly) the vast majority of all fares. For this to work we would need them to continue at their current payment level. Additionally because we have constrained entrance points to the downtown we have no choice but to accommodate future growth with more transit or car pooling and some biking & walking (mostly from adjacent neighborhoods). The cost of adding capacity to the intersection at 2nd street SW and Highway 52 for example might cost over $100 million dollars and is not going to happen.

I am painfully waiting on some numbers I requested a month ago from the transit team, so until then I don’t know exactly what the cost would be, I expect the gap for the 6 month period would be in the low 6 figures. I would suggest that this could be split between City / County / DMC / With Mayo contributing their current amount for the pilot and be budgeted in future years assuming a successful pilot.

Benefits

  • A fare free transit system is a source of equity in a sprawled out community.
  • It helps Students, Seniors, and Low Income Residents have the ability to access jobs, amenities & services.
  • It helps us make a mode shift towards less single occupant vehicle trips into the downtown.
  • It improves the efficiency of bus routes by eliminating the inefficiencies of searching for payment.
  • It avoids costs associate with cash handling & accounting.
  • It avoids future costs associated with accepting credit cards and electronic payment.
  • It avoids the bureaucracy associated with getting punch cards for users & employers supporting transit.
  • It makes it easier for visitors to use public transit.
  • It reduced uncertainty with all people just unsure how to use public transit.
  • It reduces expenses from NGOs who pay to provide transit passes.
  • Public Schools can probably augment and reduce existing bus services.
  • As ridership increases we actually get more in Federal & State funding which absorbs much of the cost.
  • Future costs savings related to how Rapid Transit stations would be constructed without the need for ticketing.

A Second Option

Another option that would achieve main equity goals could be to issue municipal IDs (being discussed already) combined with Library Cards to act as a universal bus pass for Students, Seniors, Disabled and Low Income residents to ride for free while maintaining the rest of the system.

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