Make public transport free — for everybody

[Green Left Weekly, #689, November 3, 2006]

Public transport issues continue to feature prominently in the November 25 state election as both major parties trawl for votes. First, Victorian Liberal leader Ted Ballieu pledged to make public transport free for all primary, secondary and full-time tertiary students in the state (at an estimated cost of $285 million). A few days later he promised to abolish metropolitan transport Zone 3, a move which would give significant savings to commuters travelling in to the city from the outer suburbs. And only hours after that, Labor Premier Steve Bracks promised to do the same and, furthermore, to reduce V/Line (country) fares by up to 20%.

All this is good news for long-suffering passengers. Of course, not all will benefit. One group which is discriminated against under the current arrangements is overseas students who are denied access to concession cards. As formulated, Ballieu's promised largesse leaves them out in the cold (but then, cynics might say, neither they nor their parents have a vote).

Earlier this year the Age newspaper campaigned to make metropolitan public transport completely free. To date, however, both Labor and Liberal have shied away from this approach. Indeed after Baillieu's first announcement he was immediately attacked by the Labor government treasurer, John Brumby — from the right. Once hailed as the Victorian Tony Blair, Brumby claimed that the Liberals' swag of election promises would push the state budget into deficit. This from a man sitting on a budget surplus of at least $800 million (and probably much more) which he is determined to avoid spending despite a long list of pressing needs!

According to the October 15 Age, the total fare income of the metropolitan transport system is some $460 million per year. And since there are significant costs involved in collecting this income (the ticketing sales infrastructure and the "revenue protection" apparatus), we can assume that the cost of making the system completely free would be something less than this figure. In a recent letter to the Moreland Leader attacking Socialist Alliance candidate Vannessa Hearman's advocacy of free public transport, Brunswick Labor MP Carlo Carli claimed the annual cost would be over $340 million per year.

This really is a very small sum. Of course, if fares were abolished, patronage would rise and this would necessitate further spending to make sure the system could cope — on improved infrastructure and rolling stock and on hiring thousands more staff.

In the age of global warming and catastrophic climate change brought about by runaway greenhouse gas emissions — to which motor vehicles make a very big contribution — the aim surely has to be to make a sharp move away from cars and trucks in favour of public transport and rail freight — and as quickly as possible. The government says its target is to have 20% of all journeys made by public transport — at least twice what it is now.

Firstly, this is an extremely modest target in view of what is at stake. Secondly, we are not actually moving towards it. The Bracks government talks out of both sides of its mouth on this issue. But its real commitment is to freeways and roads — witness the huge expenditure on the Eastlink freeway, a complete waste of money on a project which will actually end up making traffic congestion and car dependence worse.

What is needed is to bring metropolitan public transport back into public hands, make it completely free for everyone and couple this with big investments to extend and improve the system. If Melbourne were covered by a dense, integrated network of trains, trams and buses which ran frequently and safely then patronage would start to rise steeply as commuters at last had a real incentive to leave their cars at home.

In fact, experience in Melbourne this year has shown that when petrol prices rise steeply — and they will rise again since oil is a finite resource and it is going to run out — large numbers of commuters will move over to public transport. But in its present state this simply leads to overcrowding and service cancellations.

Furthermore, abolishing fares on the system would free up all the human resources now consumed in selling tickets and enforcing their use (collectors, inspectors, etc.). They could be redeployed into passenger service roles. The almost $500 million earmarked for the new smartcard ticketing system could be spent on actually making the system work better and more attractive to commuters.

Can we afford the large-scale investments necessary to qualitatively boost patronage of the public transport system? There can surely be only one answer here: objectively, we live in a very rich country; the resources are undoubtedly there. But under capitalism it is very much a case of "private affluence and public squalor". Make the rich and corporations pay their way — raise the top personal and company tax rates to, say, 60% and put an end to corporate welfare (subsidies, tax concessions and dubious contracts) — then we will have the funds to tackle this and many other burning problems facing our society.

But, some will say, tax is a federal issue: what can the states do? However, the constant buck-passing between Canberra and the states is really only a stratagem to hide the responsibility of the private-profit system as a whole. We shouldn't be diverted by it. We should demand what is necessary and campaign to build mass support for it.