Mass Transit Needs Masses, Too Expensive



Ron Harriman is a guy who tends to use science and math to make his points. Here is his take on recent calls for a TRANSIT SYSTEM in the Treasure Valley.

By Ron Harriman

My research has led me to conclude that in a basically rural area, transit fares will only cover 8% of the costs.

Urban costs Are:
TRIMET which is Portland’s transit system records a 2013 income of $152,698,000 from fares and a cost of $577,860,000 a net loss of over $425,162,000 a year which was partially paid for with an payroll employee tax of $259,233,000.

UTRAX which is Salt Lake’s transit system had an operating income of $52,044,000 an operating expense of $378,224,993 and a loss of $326,180,793 during 2013, which was paid by a local sales tax. Each rider costs the system $8.50 after fares were totaled.

DENVER’S Regional Transit RTD cost 50 times the cost of highways when built and is paid by a sales and use tax. Denver’s 2013 transit balance sheet shows that total fares were $117,841,000 but the costs were $511,481,000 a loss of $388,441,000.
When I last looked, constructing a transit system in the Treasure Valley would have cost $1.1 billion and would lose a minimum of $91 million a year with a more likely figure of $131 million.

For Valley Ride, the public’s fare cost for those using the bus today is $8.00+ after the fee is deducted. However, the ACHD Commuter Van is cost efficient with fares equaling the cost.
There are some salient facts that defeat the profitability of transit. First, 90+% of the businesses in Idaho are small business wherein there are less than 20 employees. Second, there are no consolidated large employer areas which could use mass transit. Third, it would clean the air about ½ of 1%, based on EPA date. (Data from the U.S. Census average of commuter use is 3% of daily travel. The Idaho EPA identifies vehicle emissions as contributing 20% of the air pollution. 20% x .03=.6 of 1%.) With these existing factors, where would the transit take the commuters?

We need a reliable bus system and we will pay for it, the rider won’t. I believe that the cheapest public transportation is actually the Private Cab.

The above listed data is recorded budget data from Portland’s TRIMET, Salt Lake City’s UTA, and Denver’s RTD) Facts are that in a basically rural area transit fares will only cover 8% of the costs. * (Rural Transit Fact Book 2014)

Mr. Harriman describes himself as a community and political activist living in Nampa and Chairman of the Tax Accountability Committee of Idaho

Comments & Discussion

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. Dale Gribble
    Nov 24, 2014, 2:59 pm

    Valleyride, our bus system, is almost completely worthless. It stops running at 6pm. It doesn’t run on Sundays. Most routes only run once per hour. No wonder nobody uses it. Plus, Boise is so sprawled out that even if we funded it absurdly, it still wouldn’t be convenient.

    “I believe that the cheapest public transportation is actually the Private Cab.”

    That would be much more convenient than the bus system, but how would it work without being abused?

  2. IdahoCrystal
    Nov 24, 2014, 3:26 pm

    Looky there – Mr. Harriman did for the Guardian what cost local agencies and cities hundreds of thousands of dollars for multiple waste-of-time studies.

    It’s not rocket surgery figuring out that transit systems aren’t profitable or all that environmentally friendly. The biggest reason that the commuter vans and ValleyRide work better is that there are smaller groups of people going to limited destinations, which allows it to be more convenient for people willing to pay for a ride share rather than each paying for a commuter car.

    The number one reason people don’t use public transportation is time – It simply takes too much time to wait for buses to take you where you need to go – especially for those with active kids, single parents, working students, or those with more than one job.

    I’d like to know more about the rail system studies and feasibility of utilizing existing rail systems in conjunction with smaller sized and shorter route feeder buses and park & rides…?

  3. It is misleading to state, Commuterride “is cost efficient with fares equaling the cost”

    Albeit, the misinformation starts with ACHD since they represent it that way in their budget.

    Fact- the riders (about 1,000 users) pay only about 40-50% of the cost to operate Commuterride.

    The rest is taken from federal TAXES, Ada County TAXES, and ACHD taxes to support the money losing Commuterride.

    ACHD has in the past, said it would transfer Commuterride to VRT, where is should be managed as a part of public transit.
    But, not soo fast- ACHD must like the federal money too much.

  4. Dale+Gribble
    Nov 24, 2014, 4:20 pm

    Easterner – you just described a fact, can you cite it?

  5. Mr. Harriman’s comparative analysis is about transit systems that actually TRANSPORT people… you know, like from Point A to Point B.

    Mayor Bieter’s Trolley Pipe Dream is about going in circles around the core downtown… NOT bringing in commuters from distant locations, as an alternative to driving. (Please correct me if I’ve got it all wrong.) It might be useful for downtown upscale condo-dwellers; everybody else would still be driving to “almost downtown” to use it.

    It would probably be well-used on “First Thursday.” If it doesn’t shut down at 6:30pm like the buses, it might be a “designated driver” for people who like to bar-hop downtown on Friday and Saturday night. And if it’s cute, you might bring (drive) your out-of-town guests downtown, for a ride to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning.

    How much can Boise’s taxpayers afford, for a novelty carnival ride? (And PLEASE don’t insult us by telling us the Feds will pay for 95% of it! We ARE “the Feds,” and last I heard we were $18 trillion in debt!)

    Full Disclosure: I’m generally supportive of mass transit. And that’s with the full understanding that it will always need taxpayer subsidy. I’d support a .5% local sales tax, if they could convince me how much better they could make our BUS system with that revenue. I’m TOTALLY skeptical about the cost/benefit of an in-ground trolley.

    EDITOR NOTE–Harriman was writing in response to the first of five parts of an IDAHO PRESS TRIBUNE series.

  6. Dale, all the budget information is available to the public, and immediately available to us all courtesy of Google.

    I am happy to hold your hand for 5 minutes if needed. Although, I do think it would be a fun exercise if you emailed ACHD to ask them about this information.

  7. Rather than resorting to Google / Bing searches number crunchers might want to check out .

    These are numbers reported by transit agencies to the Feds under a standardized reporting system. 2012 is the latest year currently available.

    In 2012 Boise regular route bus riders paid roughly 12% of the cost of their ride which was about $ 4.60 if you rode a single bus without transferring. If you transferred to another bus to complete the trip add in another $ 4.60. Sorry that’s the way the numbers get counted. Each time you got on a bus in 2012 it cost $ 4.60. You can do the math on the tax subsidy per ride.

  8. Does Bieter & Co. wish to transform Boise into just another large, infested, bastion of lib-think??

  9. The more taxpayer goodies that are provided, the more they want!!

    There is no end to the gravy train, and the blue votes and voters.

  10. Craig Quintana
    Nov 25, 2014, 11:06 am

    It’s fair to say that Commuteride vans operate on a break-even basis with the rider fares but that the larger program requires subsidies from the feds, primarily for new vans but also for some related costs, and from ACHD for the utilities, admin, etc. This has never been hidden or denied, and other transit agencies get help to buy their rolling stock, too.

    Page 26 of the FY 2014 budget,

    ACHD started Commuteride in the 1970s and continues to run it under agreement with Valley Regional Transit.

  11. Dale Gribble
    Nov 25, 2014, 11:17 am

    Steve Crea – this doesn’t really have anything to do with Bieter. Though your shallow jabs at him and the democrats are noted.

    Public transportation is important. Do you want a 2 hour commute from Nampa to downtown Boise?

  12. 240:1 Is that Chinese electric buses or regular ones that actually exist.

  13. BTW: We have a 5 lane freeway which gets crowded sometimes because Ideeehoo drivers won’t venture out beyond the 3rd lane. 4 and 5 are actually dusty from lack of use.

  14. Mr Quintana, your IDEA of break-even is different than everyone else’s idea of break-even. Why do you suppose that is?

    It is not just ‘rolling stock’. Year in and year out, Commuteride fares do not support the program.

    I’m surprised you don’t show a link to ACTUAL 2013 numbers. Well, not really surprised, considering…
    But based on the link you provided– because apparently 2012 is the most recent “Actual” information ACHD’s Chief Information Officer can get–Fares minus discount, show users paid for 38.8% and 54% of the reported revenue for 2011 and 2012, respectively.

    Also a nice shell game how your accounting dept puts the Federal Highway grants in with the Commuteride expenses instead of with the rest of the Federal Grants.

    I’m sure you can pull up the letter from ACHD’s President Franden stating ACHD would divest Commuteride asap– you know that letter from YEARS ago. How about a convenient link to that?
    So, while we’re on the topic why has ACHD not done so? And where in the meeting minutes does it show a change in opinion?

  15. Dale Gribble
    Nov 25, 2014, 2:33 pm

    Zippo, just because we have a huge highway doesn’t mean that everyone can drive, or that public transportation is useless. Or that west Treasure Valley is going to get much more populated in the next 10 years.

  16. Bieter+begone
    Nov 25, 2014, 3:02 pm

    Wow Easterner, hate ACHD much?

    Even if your numbers are accurate,, 38.8% and 54% is a heck of a lot better than 12%. Perhaps instead of trying to put a shiv in ACHD, you should try to help out our eminently pathetic bus system improve itself.

  17. Zippo… that 5 lane highway get crowded because there are too many Cali’s here

  18. Bieter Hater, bus system?
    The Guardian has offered a reasonable solution to the bus system. Many others comment on the bus system for ways to improve it. It all falls on deaf ears. Why??? The bus system managers obviously don’t care. They get paid the same whether there are riders or not…union drivers, “not my problem if this route sucks”. I know two VRT drivers and hear it regularly.

    ACHD and VRT deserve the criticism they get… let’s just look at the last two weeks for proof.

  19. Boise’s crappy bus system makes it really difficult for criminals to move freely throughout the valley. Legal representatives from the ACLU and National Criminal Gang Rights Network will be meeting with TeamDave next week to shake him down for a immediate change to this crippling and discriminating policy.

    TeamDave indicates they have done their best to foster growth opportunities for gangs, but without free transportation like Seattle and Portland there remains physical barriers to establishing an effective underworld in Boise. TeamDave goes on to lament, that they do not yet have total control of the local police, specifically highlighting the BPD and ACS aggressively solving even minor crimes.

    There remains hope at City Hall that the Obama administration will somehow force to police to allow gangs to become established in Boise.

  20. BTW: There is few if any more dangerous (to ride in) vehicles on the road than a E-250/350 passenger van. Many a college team have stopped using them due to death/injury rates.

  21. Dale Gribble:

    Are not all of these initiatives being flogged by Bieter and his minions?

    And, is this not a thinly disguised income redistribution ploy? It does not come close to paying for itself.

    Do Idahoans (vs. transplants) really want a mini NYC, or a mini Oakland, with all of the resultant city pollution that goes with it, and the resultant crime, and so forth?

    EDITOR NOTE–It is no doubt a ploy to get a “local option sales tax” as well.

  22. John Q. Public
    Nov 26, 2014, 10:32 am

    Among the many flaws associated with the City’s handling of Mass Transit, I’ve not seen anyone point out a very serious – and potentially deadly – design flaw in the new Transit Center, to wit : If a Bus were to break down on egress, ALL buses would be trapped in the underground Transit Center as the egress lane is only wide enough to accommodate 1 Bus.

    Additionally, in the event of a Fire (remember when a CNG Bus burned out of control on Main St. a few years back?), emergency exits are few and inadequate.

    P.S. Dirty little secret: Valley Ride cannot maintain its schedule(s) AND obey traffic laws. Bus Drivers must regularly speed and otherwise violate multiple traffic laws in an attempt to maintain unrealistic schedules that do not take into account emerging traffic patterns, weather conditions, or long known road construction projects.

  23. Craig–A lot of us could break even (or make a profit)if we could get someone else to front our capital costs and administration. Sign me up. Are you serious?

  24. Yep, last I checked you can’t drive a propane/CNG tank through a tunnel… wonder why it’s ok to drive several of them under a building?? (New bus station)

  25. I’ve pointed out in the past a very affordable mass transit system called Skytran. It was developed by NASA and roughly averages the same cost of installation as an average sidewalk. Skytran is highly efficient as well as highspeed. It is also redundant so that adding and maintaining the infrastructure is simple and cost affordable.

    I would also point out the factor that “rail” is an antiquated notion, though the city does have in its possession not only the right of way but what could be sold off as scrap iron from the existing rails. This would not only expedite the implementation but also offset the initial development costs.

    Skytran can also be found on Facebook.

  26. Speckled Hen
    Dec 1, 2014, 12:07 pm

    It’s pretty well proven that highways are also heavily subsidized. Anyone in favor of putting tolls on I-84 between Nampa/Caldwell and Boise to make up for this subsidy? I don’t hear that argument very often but it is needed to keep the arguments balanced.

    From the Feds: “A $9.7 billion transfer from the General Fund to the Highway Account was processed shortly after the start of the fiscal year”

    That’s roughly 25% of the overall annual funding pot.

    This means that 1 in every 4 dollars Idaho receives in Federal Transportation funds is NOT generated from the gas tax and comes from the general taxpayer fund of the US Treasury. That means two of those 8 lanes on I-84 were fully subsidized by something other than motorists paying a gas tax to get the privilege of using it.

    And this has been occurring for the past 8 years. From 2008 through 2011, Congress moved $34.5 billion to the Highway Trust Fund from the general fund.

  27. Dave Kangas
    Dec 2, 2014, 10:15 am

    While I don’t support the trolley, a commuter train for the Treasure Valley is badly needed.
    I don’t understand why a mass transit system needs to be profitable. How profitable are our highways? How profitable is it to commuters to be stuck in traffic(time), not to mention the expense of gas and autos. The Treasure valley has a very unique opportunity in that it already has a rail line in place from Caldwell to Micron and beyond.
    For some reason, people think that we aren’t going to grow, traffic is not going to increase and somehow roads and highways just pay for themselves.

    Previous leader failed to plan for a belt loop to access the far corners of the valley. Now we have Eagle Rd, State St, increasing traffic on I-84. It is time to look ahead, to new ideas.

    Buses do not promote development along a specific corridor creating walkable neighborhoods, light rail does.
    Look at Salt Lake and the reinvigorated metropolitan areas of Denver and Phoenix.

    There is a place for light rail, it is not cheap, nor are 8-10 lane freeway systems. We can’t ever build enough freeways, just look at other cities that try. We need to promote a different way of looking at transporting ourselves.

    EDITOR NOTE–You are correct about transit not being profitable. Everyone understands that and few argue that it should be profitable. The problem with light rail from Caldwell to Micron is that it depends upon RAILS. It also depends on frequent schedules to work. Caldwell to Micron with stops probably takes close to an hour. The rails are a mile from Micron at present. It would take at dozens of trains to make an efficient system. Rolling stock alone would be VERY expensive. That figure of capturing 3-5% of commuters is pretty accurate. Which means of the 35,000 who commute daily, a transit system would serve about 10,000 riders. That would mean 200 packed cars with 50 passengers each! Once they get to Boise they need a bus system to get from the tracks to the office…billions of dollars will solve the problem, but the money simply is not there.

  28. Our current situation of sprawl is caused by the pervasive car culture, and alternatives to the car should be fully funded by car/truck users to help those who don’t drive, for whatever reason, to get around in the personal automobile caused sprawl.
    As for the trolley, I’d like to put Team Dave on a one way train trip out of Boise.

  29. Time for some Rail Education 101. Just because a rail line exists doesn’t mean it should or could be used for commuter rail service. Preserving the rail corridor, however, is important for the many uses it could be put to such as a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) busway.

    First, Treasure Valley is not Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix, or Seattle.

    Second, the Valley does not have, and will not have according to COMPASS planners, the population density to support a rail operation. COMPASS’ own maps indicate as much. Rail requires a density of about 15 dwelling units per acre within a 1/4 mile of the rail line. That’s about double the current density. What’s that about being the most livable city in America?

    Third, is cost. A 2003 VRT Rail Corridor Evaluation Study indicated the Capital costs of getting a rail system up and running was about $ 128 million. That cost did not include the cost of acquiring the right-of-way nor an estimated (in 2003 dollars) annual operating cost of $ 5 million. It also did not include the cost of extending a line to Micron proper nor a new alignment between Nampa and Caldwell.

    Fourth, Federal regulations do not permit mixing light rail with heavy rail at the same time on the same line. So much for the Nampa – Caldwell connection using UP tracks. Commuter Rail is another story – and cost.

    Fifth, the Guardian is correct (as usual) about travel times. By the time you drive to one of the 7 stations (which are about 4 miles apart), wait for the train, then wait to transfer at the Depot for the vehicle to take you to your destination it will be about hour.

    And time also for some Highway Education 101. With the rebuild of the Interstate came High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) (think car pool) lanes. They’re there, they just haven’t been designated as such yet. First choice for a BRT system. BRT can foster development along its line. Think Euclid Ave in Cleveland.

    And there was a bypass loop in the plans until the last few years when it was dropped by COMPASS.

  30. OH We humans. WE want what is good for us! Dave Bieter wants what is good for his downtown core! The owner of Boise Town square mall wants what is good for mall customers! Most decisions that are made and enforced swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. ie. On Capitol Blvd, someone has eliminated parking of vehicles, in front of city hall, for loading and unloading of buses?! Why didn’t those decision makers mark half the space for buses and keep half for continued parking? THE PENDULUM! So when we don’t have a common sense thought process in regards to something so evident how can we expect changes to flow on the big issues. IT SHOULDN’T BE ALL OR NOTHING

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