* June LP newsletter: Is riding BART moral?

Topics: Transportation
23 Jul 2004

From: Ervan Darnell

One of my libertarian friends (Keith Lyon) and I have undertaken to write a point/counter-point each month for the local LP newsletter. The limit for June was 300 words. Here was our first debate:

Riding BART is weakly immoral

BART fares barely cover half of the operating cost and none of the capital cost, which far exceeds the operating cost. The most egregious example is the new airport extension which reached about a $100 subsidy per ride [1]. An $8 subsidy per ride is more typical.

Each time one rides BART, that cost is being forced upon some other taxpayer. Using a legally available and accepted tool is tolerable, but one should in good conscience also recognize the imposed cost.

But the train was going to run anyway is not a defense. That is like a vegetarian buying hamburger on the theory the cow is already dead. True, but the next cow is not yet slaughtered. Nor has the next train yet run. Ultimately, there is some next passenger that will cause BART to run another train, or to build another track. Absent evidence you are not that passenger, the fair thing is to count your fraction. In the extreme, if everyone refused to ride BART, even government would not extend it.

This is a weak principle. "Everybody else does it" is a limited defense in this case. Forgoing your subsidy when everybody else grabs theirs is not a moral obligation in the same way the LP pledge is.

One need not withdraw from every government service. Where the cost of avoidance is high, the subsidy low, and the use broad, e.g. using public roads financed mostly by fuel taxes, use the service. But when the avoidance cost is low, subsidy cost high, and only a minority benefits (9% use BART regularly), the "moral benefit" of avoidance exceeds the personal cost.
[1] $1.4G @ 3K riders/business day financed at (oh say) 5% for 30 years, 8/17/97 and 7/29/03 SF Chronicle.

Riding BART Could Move in the Right Direction

Libertarians generally look askance at public funding of private expenses, of which transportation is certainly one. So how ethical is it for a libertarian to ride the bus?

Clearly, public transit in its current form doesn't work as a standard profit-making business, and consumes large subsidies -- approximately 75% of their budgets -- from governments. Indeed, if people had to pay the full cost of their public transit trip, ridership would be virtually zero.

The best way to look at this is for automobile drivers (the preferred mode of transit for >95% of trips) should consider their subsidy of public transportation as an additional toll to allow them to drive faster on slightly less crowded, less dangerous roads. As some percentage of former drivers are able to use public transit (say BART during rush hour), continuing drivers benefit from less congestion. They are buying clearer roads via tax money.

Even if you never set foot in a BART station, and stay off rush-hour freeways, you still likely benefit from higher property values in the areas served. Free-market home buyers are willing to pay a significant premium to be a usable distance from BART, so it must have some considerable value.

Certainly, let's keep pressing to reduce these subsidies by shining the cold light of economics on particularly unwise forms (e.g. ferries and bullet trains to LA), and pressing for free-market alternatives (e.g. taxis and jitneys). By riding the system as it exists today, you help raise its farebox recovery ratio and bring it closer to being a profitable enterprise. As long as costs don't rise beyond the additional revenue you bring in, you are helping your neighbors by reducing the tax subsidy they are already assessed.

Ervan Darnell
ervan@kelvinist.com http://www.kelvinist.com

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