Rural Residents Willing to Pay More for Public Transit

PULLMAN, Wash. — Rural residents value public transit and would be willing to pay more to keep it, a new study at Washington State University shows.

“That includes non-users as well as users,” said Ken Casavant, transportation economist and one of the authors of the study. “People who don’t use it may want the option or appreciate the fact that public transit keeps additional cars off the road.

“To get a sense of how important it was, we asked how much they would have to be compensated if rural transit were eliminated. The average household value was $45.42 per month.”

The case study focused on two of the state’s rural transportation systems: LINK, which serves Chelan and Douglas counties, and the Clallam Transit System in Clallam County.

“We felt these two transit systems were representative,” Casavant said. “One is on the east side of the state, the other on the west. One serves a mostly rural clientele, the other also serves pockets of population. One charges passengers fares; the other is underwritten entirely by tax dollars.”

The study attempted to quantify benefits to non-users of public transit as well as users to portray total benefits.

“There are a certain number of people who use a bus system,” Casavant said. “Some are willing to pay for it even if they don’t use it, because it gives them the option of using it or because they feel it is a quality of life improvement for deserving citizens. Businesses are non-users but their customers and clients may use it so they benefit as well.”

Casavant and Kathleen Painter, a post-doctoral research associate, used contingent valuation, a non-market survey technique, to measure both user and non-user benefits. The technique has been used to measure non-user economic values for environmental amenities.

Contingent valuation uses responses from interviewees to quantify their estimates of benefit. Questions are posed in different ways to get them to identify a value.

The economists then compared their findings — a range of values — with the operation costs of the two systems.

The LINK system in Chelan and Douglas counties provides benefits worth between $3.4 million and $6.1 million annually, according to the results of the study. The Clallam Transit System provides $2.6 million to $6.1 million in benefits.

The lower figure aggregates responses by household. The upper figure aggregates by population age 20 and older. True aggregate benefit probably lies somewhere in between, the economists say.

The operating cost for LINK in 1998 was $7.1 million, but LINK is funded by a 0.4 percent sales tax created for that purpose. This tax generated $4.8 million in revenue in 1998. Operations costs minus the sales tax revenue results in a net operating cost of $2.2 million for the system in 1998, a figure well below the estimated range of benefits, which had been identified as how much more the residents would pay above existing fares and taxes.

The operating costs for the Clallam County system, minus fare box revenues, was about $4.2 million in 1998. The figure lies midway in the range of benefits.

Other survey highlights:

  • The most popular reason cited for riding the bus was because it is the environmentally correct thing to do.
  • The three most popular reasons for funding public transit were providing access to jobs (82 percent), access to shopping (81 percent) and access to schools (81 percent.)
  • Reducing air pollution and providing transportation for the elderly were considered worthwhile reasons for funding public transit by 66 percent and 61 percent of the respondents, respectively.

“Our study showed how much citizens in areas with existing transit systems value the benefits of access to transportation for their community,” Painter said.

There are 24 city and regional transit systems in the state. They served 85 percent of the state’s population in 1995, according to the Washington Department of Transportation. Motor vehicle excise taxes paid for 27 percent of $447 million in operating expenses that year.

Editors: You can reach Dr. Casavant at (509) 335-1608 for more information.

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