King County Metro Transit won’t run extra buses to Major League Baseball games this year, forcing hundreds of fans to rearrange their travel plans.
The buses went to and from weekend games, and left Safeco Field after weeknight games—when regularly scheduled transit was unavailable. They carried 300 to 500 passengers per game last season, said Rebecca Hale, spokeswoman for the Seattle Mariners. That included special service to 13 outlying park-and-ride lots.
But the “Metro to the Mariners” service has been banned by the federal government, which ruled a public-transit agency cannot operate a sports charter if private operators are available to do so.
Right-o, a private operator that will charge $15 to $20 per trip (split between riders and the M’s) is available to provide limited service to ballgames. So we have hundreds of riders traveling at predictable times to a central congested area near first-rate transit infrastructure — precisely the sort of rides that a public transit agency should be serving—but no legal authority to run buses because a private operator is in the mix. Wow.
If this ruling doesn’t get overturned, I’m going to start a private commuter service in my car from Ballard to downtown Seattle. It willcost $50,000 per trip, but I don’t want Metro buses competing with me. Sorry Ballard bus commuters: if you can’t afford it, you can hoof it!
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In seriousness, this isn’t good public policy. But I want to take a moment to forestall a potential objection, one floated by the private bus operator. It’s true, of course, that public transit is subsidized with public money, but that’s largely irrelevant. We subsidize transit because it provides significant social and economic benefits, including moving large numbers of people in congested areas. And there’s no reason I can see to treat a Mariner’s game different from any other popular destination, whether it’s public or private in nature. After all, commuter bus service to downtown Seattle uses public funds mostly to serve trips to private employers. That’s doubly true for bus service that travels outside the downtown core to the front door of Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon. Same with bus service to the airport, which serves the interest of private airlines. What’s so different about a baseball game?