Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Despite Spike in Paying Riders, Transit Providers Struggle

By Karl Vilacoba

We’ve all seen the reports – public transit ridership is up significantly nationwide. So how are transit agencies responding to this good news? Cutting service.

The Associated Press reported this week that many bus and train service providers are being forced to cut underperforming routes in order to cope with high diesel and gasoline costs. You’d think the rise in paying riders would offset the fuel expenses, but as the story notes, it’s not that simple. One of the reasons is that sales tax revenues that help subsidize these services are flagging, also because of the fuel prices. People just don’t have expendable income these days because they’re giving it all to the gas stations.

The Denver-area’s Regional Transportation District (RTD), which we profiled in our winter issue, was among those forced to trim services, despite record passenger numbers.

“Everything that we do is being undermined by the fuel crisis,” RTD CEO Clarence Marsella said. “It’s really diabolical. The tentacles are everywhere.”

If there’s a bright side to this fuel crisis, it’s that it’s causing Joe Public to take part in serious conversations he wouldn’t have bothered with before. Topics like alternative energies, transportation funding, the nation’s infrastructure and climate change are getting play on the news shows every night now, in part because the people have pushed them into the presidential campaign dialogue. People are realizing, albeit slowly, that the old way of doing things can not be continued forever. The importance of transit as an alternative to single occupancy vehicle trips is a big part of these discussions.

We may soon find out how committed people are to their new commuting habits. Gasoline prices typically peak in the summer, when demand is highest, and drop in the fall. Lately we’ve seen prices slide a little bit due to market forces. If gas plummets back to around $3 per gallon or the high $2s, will the ridership gains be maintained, or will people get back behind the wheel, as if it were all just a bad dream?

If not, transit agencies will have a new base of paying customers with less overhead to pay. We’ll also know the bus and train trips they’ve been making were about more than just sticker shock.

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