Budget Matters: Transit, Airport, and "Cost of Growth" Study
August 12, 2018
Public hearings on the City of Columbia proposed budget will be held during the August 20, September 4, and September 17 Council meetings.
In this newsletter, I will present my thinking and request your feedback on a few critical issues that will be discussed over the next several weeks, before we finalize and adopt a City Budget for the 2019 Fiscal Year. If the 696 pages of the proposed budget are too much for you, here are a couple of shorter documents that will give you a good understanding of the budget process and this year's proposed changes:
Public Transit ServiceI am extremely concerned about proposed drastic cuts to our public transit service, which would discontinue all of the "Neighborhood Loops," reduce service on the Gold and Black "Connector Routes," eliminate Saturday service, and raise Paratransit fees.
Because transit operations depend almost entirely on sales taxes and those revenues are declining, the transit fund has been running an annual deficit for the last few years, eating into its reserves, and will become insolvent soon. Even with the deep cuts proposed by the City Manager, the fund is expected to run out of cash in 2023, unless we are able to start collecting sales tax on Internet purchases or a new revenue source is found.
This is very disappointing, in the larger, long-range planning context for the transit system. In 2016-17, Olsson Associates conducted a study of the system, and concluded that we have high ridership and future projected demand on the main Gold and Black Connector Routes, but very low ridership on most of the Neighborhood Loops. Olsson's “cost-neutral” recommendation was to replace the Neighborhood Loops with a “Flex” service and re-allocate those savings to increase the frequency and hours of service on the Gold and Black Routes (which run mainly on Broadway, Worley, Providence, College, and Old 63). The long-term goal would be to build a culture of transit on these high-propensity corridors (in concert with denser, mixed-use zoning, more walkable design, and reduced parking requirements) as the foundation for future system expansion.
Unfortunately, declining sales tax revenues mean a "cost-neutral" solution is unworkable. In order to avoid insolvency, the City will have to eliminate the Neighborhood Loops without implementing the lower-cost “Flex” system or improving service on the Gold and Black routes. This will cause considerable hardship to low-income families in outlying neighborhoods while providing no basis for future service expansion.
This newsletter goes to 2,740 residents of Columbia and Boone County - most of you own cars and rarely use public transit. I urge you to re-imagine transit as a safe, convenient, environmentally-friendly, and affordable public service that makes sense for all of us to use sometimes, while providing a decent level of essential mobility for those without any other options.
The community benefits (including lower public and private costs) will be great, but a new funding structure is needed - please share your suggestions with me.
Columbia Regional Airport
I have been delighted with the improved performance of Columbia Regional Airport, which is the result of strategic decisions (and some managed risk) taken by the City of Columbia, Chamber of Commerce, University of Missouri, and other partners.
Passenger boardings have increased ten-fold in the last decade. We now have thirteen flight arrivals and thirteen departures every day, which have boosted landing charges and passenger facility fees. In 2016, Columbia voters approved a 1% increase in the City's Lodging Tax (paid by hotel guests) and earmarked the entire $600,000/year of new revenue for the airport. We have received and are scheduled to receive enormous state and federal grants (running into the tens of millions of dollars) for runway and terminal improvements, and are now on track to build a brand new, state-of-the-art terminal with several passenger gates in the next few years.
I have benefited personally from the convenience of multiple daily options to fly out of Columbia Regional Airport, just a 20-minute taxi ride down Highway 63. Although the airline tickets are more expensive, there is tremendous value in avoiding two hours on I-70, and I find I can still get to almost all of my destinations with just one layover. The new non-stop Denver flight allows my wife and me to visit our son for a long weekend with absolutely minimal travel time. And, when the new passenger terminal is built, even more flights are likely - yes, Columbia has a real airport, now.
However, unlike most passenger airports, we do not charge for parking and 600-800 privately-owned vehicles are stored on site every night. A modest parking fee of just $5/day would generate $3,500/day or more than $1 million/year for airport operations. The City currently incurs considerable costs for the construction, maintenance and operation of our parking facility at the airport, as illustrated in this "Benefit-Cost Analysis" by the Transportation Economics Committee of the Transportation Research Board. It is fair and logical to charge at least some of those costs to the users who benefit from parking.
Airport operations (like transit operations) are funded from the half-cent-on-the-dollar Transportation Sales Tax (TST). Historically, the airport and transit have each received 25% of these revenues (currently about $11 million/year but declining), with the other 50% going to roads. Since sales taxes are regressive and are paid disproportionately by low-income families who never use the airport, I believe there is a case to be made to re-allocate some of these funds from the airport to pu blic transit, especially since the airport is leaving more than $1 million/year on the table by giving away free parking. This would be in line with policies at other similar airports.
MidAmerica St. Louis Airport recently enacted a $5/day parking fee. Like Columbia Regional Airport, MidAmerica serves regional populations, is experiencing rapid passenger growth (currently has slightly fewer boardings), and offers parking (now $5/day) just steps away from the terminal. And at Springfield-Branson Airport, passengers pay $16/day for short-term parking adjacent to the terminal and $11/day for long-term parking a little further away.
It has been suggested that a parking fee might drive passengers back to using St. Louis or Kansas City Airports. I do not think that is likley (and parking is much more expensive there) but, to address that concern, I am planning to propose the City conduct an “Economic Elasticity Study” to determine whether a small parking fee would have any impact.
Please let me know your thoughts on imposing a small parking fee. Do you use Columbia Regional Airport and would a $5/day fee discourage you? And would you support an “Economic Elasticity Study?”
And, if you would like this to discuss with the City's Airport Administrators, drop by the Chamber of Commerce building (300 S. Providence Road) on Thursday between 8:00 - 9:00 am for "All Things Airport", a new monthly public engagement program."Cost of Growth" Study
My thanks to the seventy-seven (77) of you who responded to my question in last week's newsletter, "Should the City Levy Development Impact Fees To Cover the Cost of Expanding Public Infrastructure?"
If you take a couple of minutes to review all the responses I received, you will observe that almost everyone that responded agrees that this is fair and logical way to recover the cost of infrastructure expansion for growth.
With that in mind, I plan to ask my Council colleagues to support funding in the upcoming budget to conduct a "Cost of Growth" study for each of our public infrastructure systems, so we have the data on which base our policy decisions.
My next Constituent Conversations will be held on Sunday September 2nd, 2-4pm at Dunn Bros. Coffee. Dates for Constituent Conversations are always available at my web site.