Mass transit demand rises, costs soar
Fuel prices and smaller government subsidies are squeezing transit budgets.
In Seattle, transportation officials plan to add to their daily schedule another three round-trip trains to nearby Tacoma.Skip to next paragraph
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In New York City, the transportation agency is spending millions of dollars to modernize the subway system's antiquated signaling system, so significantly more trains can travel through its underground tunnels at one time.
Across the US, public-transit officials are scrambling to accommodate a record number of people who are leaving their cars at home and hopping the bus or the train to work.
More than 90 percent of public-transit officials report that their ridership is up over the past three years, according to a survey released this week by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). And more than 90 percent credited the sky-high gasoline prices.
At the same time, many transit agencies find themselves squeezed by the higher fuel prices and smaller local government subsidies, which are shrinking because of the economic downturn. Almost 70 percent have had to raise fares, and some have even been forced to curtail services to cope with the high energy prices, even as the demand is increasing.
"You've got a time in history where these agencies could be tapping a new market and attracting the suburban people who, heretofore, have been less likely to ride [public transit]," says Stephen Reich, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "Some agencies are even contracting service because of fuel costs and decreasing government support."
The Seattle area has seen the biggest increase in the number of people riding the commuter rails: up 28 percent from last year. The primary reason is not just gasoline price hikes. Sound Transit, which runs the region's commuter trains, light rail, and buses, is in the process of finishing an ambitious expansion program started 1996. It built commuter-rail lines north and south of Seattle that started operating in 2001. In 2006, only half the number of commuters predicted 10 years earlier were riding the rails. But growth started to pick up in 2006, along with gasoline prices, and now it's going "gangbusters."
"We're growing at a clip that's about what we can do," says Linda Robson, a spokeswoman for Sound Transit. "In fact, we have scheduled to add another three round-trip commuter trains that would run between Tacoma and downtown Seattle, but we are out of space on our layover yard in Tacoma." So they're adding some track and expanding the yard. They'll add two more trains come the fall and a third in 2009, when the construction is finished.
There's a similar story under way in the Miami area, where the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority runs the Tri-Rail commuter trains from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach. In 2006, the agency completed a "double track" corridor improvement program, and since then, the number of riders has grown by between 10 and 20 percent annually. Just this past April, ridership was up 28 percent over a year ago.