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Public Transit Ridership Rises To Highest Level in 52 Years
4% Increase Comes Despite Job Losses, Plunging Gas Prices

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009

Despite job losses and falling gasoline prices, record numbers of Americans rode subways, buses and commuter rail last year, boosting public transportation ridership to its highest level in 52 years, according to a survey to be released today by the American Public Transportation Association.

Advocates say the ridership figures show growing support for public transportation. They hope to use that support to push for federal funding beyond the $8.4 billion in stimulus money set aside for transit. More investment in transit not only helps the economy, advocacy groups say, but also helps the environment and fosters energy independence.

"Now, more than ever, the value of public transportation is evident, and the public has clearly demonstrated that they want and need more public transit services," said APTA President William W. Millar.

"These are investments that pay off for decades and decades to come," he said. Boston opened the nation's first subway in 1897. More than a century later, Millar noted, "I can still ride it today."

The 10.7 billion transit trips Americans took last year amounted to a 4 percent increase over trips taken in 2007; at the same time, Americans drove measurably less, according to the Transportation Department.

The increase is significant because cheaper gas and job losses tend to drive transit ridership down. Almost 60 percent of transit riders go to work.

The APTA survey found that ridership increased last year on all modes of transit all across the country. Ridership rose on 14 of the nation's subway systems (3.5 percent), 20 of 21 commuter rail systems (4.7 percent) and 20 of 26 light-rail systems (8.3 percent). Some of the big increases were in places such as South Florida, Dallas and Salt Lake City, not necessarily among the largest communities served by transit, officials said.

Bus service increased 3.9 percent, but ridership on systems serving populations under 100,000 rose 9.3 percent, the survey found. Riders in those systems typically wait up to an hour for their buses, officials said.

In the Washington region, Metrorail, the Virginia Railway Express and MARC commuter rail also reported ridership increases.

Transit officials said that even with fewer people going to work and cheaper gas, riders are taking transit to save money. On Oct. 1, a gallon of regular gas was $3.61, compared with $4.11 a gallon on July 17. By year's end, the national average was $1.61.

In South Florida, average weekday ridership on the Tri-Rail commuter line is about 15,000 trips, a small number compared with the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that cram Interstate 95 every day between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. But ridership on Tri-Rail, which runs from Miami to West Palm Beach, rose 18 percent in the fourth quarter and nearly 23 percent for the year. Reflecting a nationwide trend, more riders climbed aboard in the second and third quarters last year as gasoline prices skyrocketed, and the number stayed even when prices at the pump fell. The trend is holding, with ridership up about 8 percent in January over the same month last year, Tri-Rail spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold said.

The Dallas light-rail system, which has an average weekday ridership of 70,000 trips, registered a ridership increase of more than 8 percent in the fourth quarter and more than 10 percent for the year.

"People who were used to driving did the math and figured they could buy a monthly pass [$50] for less than a tank of gas," said Morgan Lyons, a spokesman for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit. As gasoline prices fell, other benefits became more apparent, he said. Instead of traffic-clogged drives that could take up to an hour, riders could be on the train for 35 to 40 minutes and do work or relax. "When you have to start making decisions about all the little things, other little things become equally important," he said.

Ridership demand notwithstanding, enormous budget deficits and falling sales and property tax revenue have forced many transit agencies to raise fares and cut service. Last month, the Cincinnati Metro said it was reducing service on 27 bus routes to balance its 2009 budget. Maryland officials cut MARC rail and commuter bus service. In Washington, Metro officials are expected to decide this week whether they will reduce bus and rail service to help close a $29 million deficit in next year's budget.

Looking ahead, transit officials say ridership is likely to fall in the first quarter of this year because of the slumping economy. But they say stimulus-funded projects set to get underway this spring will show policymakers the benefits of transit investment. Transit agencies have to apply for grants from the Federal Transit Administration.

Metro, which expects to get about $200 million in funding, plans to submit its application this month and launch several projects, such as repairing crumbling station platforms, by late spring, officials said.

"There are a lot of eyes watching those of us who are in receipt of stimulus funds," Millar said. If transit agencies spend the money quickly and create jobs, building "tracks to somewhere" instead of "a bridge to nowhere," federal policymakers "will be much more inclined to listen and invest additional sums," he said.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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