Transit ridership declines 4% nationwide
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Public transit ridership fell nearly 4 percent in the U.S. last year after a record-breaking 2008, and advocates' hopes for a rebound this year are clouded by a continuing series of fare increases and deep service cuts across the nation.
The American Public Transportation Association reported this month that Americans took more than 10 billion trips on transit in 2009, the fourth straight year that threshold was exceeded. It blamed the decline on high unemployment, the recession and lower gasoline prices.
But APTA President William Millar said the small decrease was a sign of public transit's strength. Ridership has climbed 31 percent in the last 15 years, outpacing population growth and the increase in car travel over that time.
With gasoline prices expected to pass $3 a gallon this spring and summer, transit would be poised for more growth. Instead, in many places, it is shriveling.
Systems in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, New Jersey, Louisville, Ky., Orange County, Calif., and Fort Worth, Texas, are among those cutting service or proposing to do so.
New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority is weighing bus and subway cuts to close a $380 million deficit. Chicago Transit Authority implemented changes Feb. 7 that reduce frequency of trips and service hours.
New Jersey Transit plans to raise fares 25 percent, eliminate 32 commuter trains and add 5 to 20 minutes to the spacing between bus trips. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority might cut 30 percent of its routes.
The Metro system in the nation's capital is considering fare increases and cuts to bus and rail service to fill a $189 million budget shortfall.
And in St. Louis, officials say if county voters reject a half-cent sales tax increase for transit next month, service will be cut in half.
Two studies last year spotlighted the financial crisis faced by public transit.
Transportation for America, a nationwide coalition of hundreds of housing, business, environment, public health, transportation, government and development groups and officials, reported that nearly 90 percent of transit agencies in the U.S. had raised fares or cut service in the preceding year.
An APTA study produced similar results, and found that 80 percent of agencies were dealing with flat or declining revenue from state and local government.
"When gas prices get to $3, that's when people start to park their cars," said APTA spokeswoman Virginia Miller. The latest wave of cuts "means some people are going to go back to their cars, which is a shame."
Transportation for America spokesman David Goldberg said "up until the depth of the Great Recession there were signals from a variety of directions about the strength of transit across the country."
Ridership stayed at record levels well into the economic slump; people tired of commuting and traffic started moving back into cities; and young people put off buying cars "for economic or lifestyle reasons," he said.
"All of these trends are good news for the long term. In our view we should be building to meet the demand for transit. It's very disappointing and frustrating to see this big, ripe opportunity right in our grasp and instead be faced with climbing out of a hole."
In Pittsburgh, Port Authority ridership declined by 1.4 percent last year. The agency provided more than 67 million rides on buses, light rail, the Monongahela Incline and ACCESS. Authority officials said high unemployment caused the decline.
The agency faces a $25 million budget gap for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and that could double if Pennsylvania's bid to impose tolls on Interstate 80 is rejected and the state is forced to cut transit funding.
Such a scenario would almost certainly result in big fare increases and service cuts, officials said last month.
Mr. Goldberg said the federal government needs to step in to advance the benefits of greater transit use -- less oil consumption, cleaner air and reduced highway congestion.
Federal aid to larger transit systems is reserved for capital projects. There has been no federal operating support, aside from an option to flex 10 percent of 2009 economic stimulus allocations into operations.
"We're also suggesting that any new jobs bill needs to have a component to stanch some of this red ink," he said.
First Published March 15, 2010 12:00 am