Contracting for Public Transit Services in the US: Evaluating the Tradeoffs

This paper describes how, when considering public transit, travelers typically judge whether it serves desired destinations in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost. How public transit agencies choose to operate their services – their networks, service frequency, and fare structures – to compete with private vehicles and provide mobility for those without them is the subject of this paper. Specifically, the authors examine the “make” or “buy” decision in public transit: Should government agencies operate (make) transit service directly, or does it save money to contract with private firms (buy) to operate transit service? The latter option is often called “contracting out” or, less accurately, “privatization.” Whether to make or buy transit service has fueled highly charged political debates that frequently cleave along partisan lines. Liberals often favor direct public provision of government services, and fear that contracting with private firms for service usually hurts labor. Conservatives tend to favor competitive procurement of goods and services, and assert that contracting for transit service is almost always more efficient than direct government provision. However, the issues at stake are far more subtle and complex than these competing perspectives, which are often offered in black and white at public meetings and depicted simplistically by the media. This paper aims to bring both nuance and rigor to bear on what can be noisy ideological debates over the costs and benefits of contracting out for transit service. It summarizes a series of recent studies conducted by researchers at the University of California. The focus is on bus transit, which carries more passengers than any other transit mode (subway, trolley, van, etc.), operates on fixed routes and schedules and in mixed traffic on local streets and freeways.

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  • Corporate Authors:

    European Conference of Ministers of Transport

    2 rue Andre Pascal
    F-75775 Paris Cedex 16,   France 
  • Authors:
    • Frick, Karen Trapenberg
    • Taylor, Brian D
    • Wachs, Martin
  • Publication Date: 2008


  • English

Media Info

  • Media Type: Print
  • Features: Figures;
  • Pagination: pp 47-65
  • Monograph Title: Privatisation and Regulation of Urban Transit Systems

Subject/Index Terms

Filing Info

  • Accession Number: 01140519
  • Record Type: Publication
  • ISBN: 9282101991
  • Files: TRIS
  • Created Date: Sep 21 2009 2:25PM