On Tuesday, May 3rd, the Interurban Transit Partnership – the local bus system – wants to stick its hand deeper into the pockets of Grand Rapids area property owners. It has scheduled a tax election to replace the expiring bus millage with a higher, longer-term one. The ITP wants to jack up the bus tax by a third on property owners and wants to guarantee the payment of that tax for seven instead of five years.
So you have a choice on May 3rd. Vote “yes” and pay the ITP $110.25 in property taxes every year for the next seven years (on a $150K home). Vote “no” and pay the ITP nothing in property taxes.
The ITP says it needs you to pay property taxes to it to keep “The Rapid” local bus system running. And by running it, it means expanding it. The ITP crows about the booming success of the Rapid. Ridership has increased ten percent over the past decade! Little wonder, seeing that the Grand Rapids Public School District puts its high school students on Rapid buses now – and you are already paying property taxes to transport these kids back and forth to class. So why is any tax increase needed, let alone a one-third increase?
Well, the ITP being what it is, a government bureaucracy, loses money hand over fist every year and wants to do that on an even bigger scale. Few are willing to pay what its services actually cost, so to keep bumbling along the ITP has to cover its expenses by extracting dollars from the hides of non-riding taxpayers. To justify the taxpayer subsidy, it keeps promising that there’s a bright shiny thing behind the curtain if only we will pay just a little more for a little bit longer – and, boy, won’t we be proud of our community then. This time, the ITP’s bright shiny thing is the “Silver Line”, a bus, perhaps painted silver, which will whoosh up and down Division Avenue just like light-rail does! ‘Nuff said.
Let’s crunch some numbers from the most recent state audit of the ITP. For fiscal year 2010, the ITP spent over $44 million in salaries, supplies, and equipment wear-and-tear (known in the accounting trade as “depreciation”). To cover those costs it collected a paltry $5 million in bus fares. That means the typical bus rider pays less than a half-dollar fare per trip, while the typical property owner pays over a buck-and-a-quarter for each of those money-losing trips. And that’s not the half of it! Local, state, and federal taxpayers all have to chip in an additional two dollars for each of those trips, and the ITP still doesn’t cover its costs. The bottom line is that the bus rider pays 11% of what the trip costs, and the taxpayer pays the rest.
On May 3rd the ITP wants more from property owners to make this black hole even bigger. And just who is it that taxpayers are assisting with this largesse? The ITP is notoriously opaque when comes to useful information about its operations. So the good folks at ITP Watch have taken on the job of keeping the taxpayers informed. According to them, about a quarter million people commute to work daily in the Grand Rapids area. Only 4,200 of them ride the Rapid, about 1.7% of all commuters.
So the commuting bus rider accounts for around a million Rapid passenger trips a year. The ITP says that it runs about nine million such trips a year. Who accounts for the other eight million? We know about the high school students, which we already pay for with other taxes. So who else? Who are these Rapid bus riders with needs so compelling that the taxpayers should pay 89 cents out of every dollar of cost for their transport? I suppose it's good that the Rapid keeps downtown-bar bingeing college students from behind the wheel, but a public subsidy for public intoxication? The ITP needs to do better than that.
Keep in mind, this is a question about the Rapid, the general-purpose bus system, and not the Go Bus program for seniors and the disabled. If there is genuine demand upon the wallets of the taxpayers, especially during these days of public excesses and economic straits, then the ITP should be able to articulate it. Supporters of the tax hike make their case at www.rapidyes.org. Amid their googly-eyed, la-la-land yappery, I didn’t read much in the way of hard fact and good argument, but then the tax-and-spend crowd would rather pluck at heartstrings – what better way to distract from its pick-pocketing?