Tallahassee’s public bus transportation system, Starmetro, has been the subject of criticism among community members who use the buses. With a 3.0 star rating (out of five) on Google reviews, many complain about the poor quality of service, lack of cleanliness, tardiness, and limited bus routes and times.
Complaints about public transportation are not an anomaly. Similar criticisms exist from Miami bus riders, who rate Miami Dade Transit with a 3.0-star rating. The Orlando Lynx bus service received a two-star rating on Yelp. Advocates of privatization of public transit argue that private services are capable of offering superior services to that of the public sector. Instead of being majority subsidized by the government as most public transportation services are, private buses must attract and maintain a customer base by providing competitive, adequate and timely services.
The United States has a long history of private transit. Until the 1960s, private companies controlled all modes of mass transportation, including buses and trains. The 1964 Urban Mass Transit Act established a precedent for government-subsidized transit, allowing states to apply for grant money to help build and operate transit services. Economist Randal O. Toole argues that corporate interests were supporting government funding, a desire to provide affordable transit to economically vulnerable citizens, but from corporate interests instead. The reasoning behind the passage of the Urban Mass Transit Act was to tap into government funding. The effect of federal funding was to displace private transportation services. Since the government takeover of mass transportation, transit worker productivity has declined sharply.
From 1965 to 2008, O’Toole notes in Fixing Transit: The Case for Privatization, a study for the Cato Institute, government subsidies for public transit have increased from $0.6 billion to $24.5 billion. Meanwhile, the number of riders has decreased sharply, with per-capita ridership declining from an average of 60 trips per year in 1965 to 45 trips in 2008. New York City remains the system with the highest per-capita ridership, averaging 217 trips per year.
Florida metropolitan areas experienced considerably less in ridership. While Gainesville per-capita ridership is at 52 trips per year which are slightly above the national average, Miami’s ridership rests at 33 trips per year. College Towns and metropolitan areas score higher in ridership while rural and sparsely populated areas fare much worse. A big reason behind the drastic drop in ridership over several decades is the rise in private ownership of automobiles.
Since the 2008 recession, cities have faced a considerable budget gap for transit funding. Fares have increased sharply to offset costs, but the quality of service and routes have not improved. Much of the costs of subsidizing transit has been relegated to taxpayers, most of whom do not use public transportation services. While automobiles have become increasingly energy efficient, costs of public transportation continue to increase. Instead of market forces dictating work-pay, bus unions lobby for large sums of money. This increases operating costs. Moreover, governments subsidize unsuccessful routes that cost more to run than they receive in bus fares.
According to O’Toole, it costs $36 billion a year on average to run a public transit service. He adds that, “Of this, slightly less than a third comes from transit fares, while slightly more than a third comes from state or local taxes—mostly sales taxes—dedicated to transit. Only about seven percent comes from federal funds, and most of the rest, or about a quarter of operating costs, comes from annual or regular appropriations by state legislatures or local city or county commissions.”