Public transport, who really has to pay?

Direct rail lines, but sometimes broken signaling, leading to cancellations and delays

Public transport, who really has to pay?

Direct rail lines, but sometimes broken signaling, leading to cancellations and delays. Brand new city buses stuck in traffic. Extensive tram networks, which stop running after 9 p.m. Without forgetting the drivers who are missing. As users see every day, the chronic underinvestment in public transport causes gaps and uncertainties, and ends up favoring their direct competitor: the private car.

For the Paris region alone, an additional 800 million euros would be needed in 2024 to operate the network, calculated Ile-de-France Mobilités (IdFM), the organizing authority which depends on the region. This amount should then increase each year, reaching 2.6 billion in 2031, when new trams, RERs and the first lines of the Grand Paris Express, the "supermetro" of the inner suburbs, will enter service. "We're going to have to find a lot of money pretty quickly. Until now, we have overlooked the operating costs of the Grand Paris Express, "warns Nicolas Bauquet, director general of the Paris Region Institute (IPR), the Ile-de-France urban planning agency. Outside Ile-de-France, the "metropolitan regional express services", amplified services to large cities, highlighted by Emmanuel Macron one evening in November on YouTube, are calling for investments, quantified in billions of euros by some of the communities concerned.

Transportation is never free. It is even quite expensive. Not so much to travellers, even if some, when booking a last-minute TGV ticket, complain about it. Revenue only covers a third of the budget for the operation of urban transport, and this share tends to fall regularly because, contrary to popular belief, ticket prices increase less quickly than inflation. The contribution of travelers remains a taboo for most elected officials, which Bruno Gazeau, president of the National Federation of Transport Users (Fnaut), is struggling to break. "When the offer has improved, it makes sense for the user to pay more," he admits.

100 billion euros promised by 2040

The public authorities provide the second third of the budget, and the employers the third, through the mobility payment, a tax based on the payroll. Conceived in 1971 as a contribution by public and private companies in the Paris region to the infrastructure necessary for the travel of their employees, this contribution has gradually been increased and extended to less populated agglomerations. But today, "its yield is leveling off, most cities having pushed the rate to which they are entitled to the maximum, between 0.80% and 2.95% of the payroll", warns Cyprien Richer, mobility researcher for the Center for studies and expertise on risks, the environment, mobility and planning. In addition, he points out, the mobility payment, "designed to finance investments, has become a resource to cover operating deficits". The tax is nevertheless contested locally by the Mouvement des entreprises de France, as well as by certain peripheral municipalities, well endowed with jobs but poorly served by transport.

All mobility stakeholders – carriers, elected officials, user associations – welcomed, in February, the 100 billion euros by 2040 announced by Elisabeth Borne for investment in rail. Even if the commitment of the State is in reality limited to 25 billion, relying on the regions and the European Union for the complement. Economist Yves Crozet, a transport specialist, observes this enthusiasm with detachment. “Funding is meant to be deferred. In 2011, the SNCF promised to electrify the Paris-Troyes line, and it is still not finished,” he notes.

This is just one example among many. Because money is lacking for everything: investment, operation, urban transport, rail, freight. " Who will pay ? This is a cardinal question,” summarizes Nicolas Bauquet. The public transport sector, which until then had contented itself with politely asking for increased budgets, is becoming bolder and openly eyeing its main rivals, the car and the plane. For Fnaut, the 100 billion euros promised in February must puncture "the air and motorway sectors", which benefit, like the railway, from "renewed growth, but without sharing the objectives of energy sobriety".

Charging for polluting and cumbersome mobility to finance mass transport? This is the Swiss model. The railway infrastructure fund, which finances the operation and modernization of the network, is funded, among other things, by a fee on the circulation of heavy goods vehicles. This is also the solution chosen in Germany, where the monthly flat rate of 49 euros for regional trains and local transport, set up in early May, is partly financed by a tax on trucks.

So who really has to pay? "The plane, the truck, the car", according to Charlotte Nenner, Europe Ecology-Les Verts adviser for Ile-de-France, who has developed her own project to "save public transport".

Let's start with the plane, which environmentalists are not alone in wanting to tax. The IPR published in March, at the request of the elected representatives of the Regional Council, a document on "the financing of the operation of public transport in Ile-de-France". The urban planning agency is studying the increase in the solidarity "Chirac tax" demanded of air travelers, who, once they have landed, also benefit from heavily subsidized public transport. To this, environmentalists from the Ile-de-France propose to add a tax on private flights, which "would above all have a symbolic significance", recognizes Charlotte Nenner. Because taxation, as everyone knows, is not only intended to fill the coffers, but also to announce priorities and influence behavior.

Financing a "supply shock"

The truck, then. The "Amazon tax" on home deliveries already exists in the state of Colorado or Barcelona, ​​reports the IPR. Taxation "not illegitimate", according to Nicolas Bauquet. According to him, in large cities, "if vans can deliver, it is because congestion is considerably reduced thanks to public transport".

The car, finally. The IPR has studied the creation of an "infrastructure sticker" applicable to all vehicles. This tool, imagined under Guy Mollet in 1956, had been abolished under Lionel Jospin in 2000. At the rate of 100 euros per vehicle and if it applied only to the small Ile-de-France region, rather well served by public transport, the sticker would make it possible to bring in 260 million euros per year. Its income would be, according to the Union of Public Transport (UTP), which defends the same measure, "directly directed towards public transport".

The UTP, it should be remembered, is not an interventionist public safety committee, but the professional body of the public transport sector. His "seven things to think about" for financing a "supply shock" in public transport, are aimed directly at the car. Carriers point to the advantage of a company car, "little taken into account by taxation", and propose, in each agglomeration, to "direct part of the parking revenue towards the budget of the mobility organizing authority ".

The potential resources are immense. Contrary to heavily entrenched ideas, paid parking does little for communities. A study published in 2021 by Fnaut shows that only 1% of parking spaces in France are paid for. These 750,000 places bring in 891 million euros per year, from which must be deducted the provision of land, development costs, maintenance and control, i.e. 427 million. The same expenses mobilized to develop and maintain the 99% of free places amount to more than 12 billion euros.

Many potential recipes

The revitalization of public transport thanks to the contributions of its much less virtuous competitors seems to suit all mobility players. Nicolas Bauquet welcomes "a broad political consensus", across Ile-de-France. “Funding expertise is growing,” observes Charlotte Nenner.

But among all these potential recipes, which one to choose? And above all, who will have the courage of the decision? The spirit of the times, it will have escaped no one, is not really the big tax night. Small concession to the dogma of less tax, the Minister Delegate for Transport, Clément Beaune, admitted on May 25 that "it would not be a social drama" to tax first-class plane tickets more to "finance energy transition".

For operation, Yves Crozet pleads for the generalization of the internal consumption tax on energy products, a small part of which now goes to transport in the Ile-de-France region, a model which could be extended to all communities. As for investments, "it would be enough to give up a few motorway projects", says Geneviève Lafferère, representative of France Nature Environnement on the Infrastructure Orientation Council, charged by Matignon with guiding the policy of major projects. According to a survey by Reporterre magazine, the addition of all the disputed road projects would reach 18 billion euros. More than enough to finance investment in public transport for the next twenty years.