Nothing focuses the municipal mind quite like the promise of money, especially in these pandemic beleaguered times. And what local leaders saw in the Department of Public Utilities’ report last week on the use of transportation networks probably wasn’t how much demand has grown for services such as Uber and Lyft. It was in dollars counted and dollars that could have been.
The bottom line of last Friday’s report was 91.1 million trips taken via Uber and Lyft in Massachusetts last year. That represented a 12% increase from the prior year, with the biggest rates of growth not in Boston and Cambridge but gateway cities and smaller communities.
In the Merrimack Valley and North Shore, there were nearly 1 million more trips — about a quarter more from year to year, according to our analysis of the state’s data. Rides starting in our region averaged about 5 1/2 miles in length, and lasted just under 15 minutes.
As importantly in city hall, each trip was taxed at 20 cents, with proceeds split between the state and the community where the ride began. The fee was most lucrative for places with the most rides — cities such as Lynn (its share was nearly $94,000), Lawrence (more than $56,000) and Salem ($48,000). But every community saw something, including $340.20 for rides started in Merrimac to $364.50 for those coming out of Essex.
If Gov. Charlie Baker gets his way, city and town halls would see an even greater windfall from those trips. His fiscal 2021 budget proposes raising the fee to $1, cutting in cities and towns on 30 cents of that, with the remainder going to shore up the MBTA. Doing so last year would’ve netted $827,000 more for cities and towns in our region, from $113,000 extra for Lawrence to $97,000 more for Salem, enough to cover a teacher or so.
The asterisk here is COVID-19. Pandemic-related shutdowns stifled travel and commuting, as well as rides on Uber and Lyft. It’s certain that fees won’t bring in anywhere near as much this year, even if Baker’s plan succeeds and every community wrangles three dimes per passenger instead of one.
The mere fact that local budgets are strained by early stages of recession is no good reason to raise the fee. Everyone’s hurting -- including people who use Uber and Lyft. Still, Baker’s search for a revenue source to shore up a needy public transit system is compelling, and as budgets get tighter, the dollar signs behind each of those “Uber” stickers and “Lyft” signs on passing cars will be harder to resist.
For the DPU’s report on transportation network companies, see tnc.sites.digital.mass.gov.