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Transit Use Hit Five-Decade High in 2008 as Gas Prices Rose

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More people rode the nation’s public buses, subways and commuter trains last year than in any year since 1956, when the federal government created the Interstate highway system, according to a report by a transit association.

 

Americans took nearly 10.7 billion rides on public transportation in 2008, a 4 percent increase over the previous year, according to the report, by the American Public Transportation Association, a nonprofit organization that represents transit systems. The report was to be released on Monday in Washington at the association’s annual conference.

 

Use of public transportation in the United States has risen 38 percent since 1995, the report said.

 

Ridership surged after gasoline prices hit $4 a gallon last summer and held steady in the fall after gas prices fell, the report found. But few experts expect the growth to continue this year, in part because transit systems across the country are raising fares and cutting service as the tax revenue they rely on plummets during the recession.

 

But for transit operators, last year’s mark was something to savor. It was the most trips on public transit since 1956, when Elvis Presley released “Heartbreak Hotel,” Soviet tanks quashed an uprising in Hungary, and Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which created the Interstate highway system and lured commuters to trade in their tokens and bus tickets for car keys.

 

Transit officials were especially heartened that Americans continued to turn to public transportation in the last quarter of the year, even after gas prices dropped.

 

“You would normally have expected with lower gas prices, a declining economy and rapidly growing unemployment that transit ridership would have been down,” said William W. Millar, the transportation association’s president. “It appears that many of those people, once they tried public transit, found that it suited their needs.”

 

Ridership was up on all modes of public transportation in 2008; it grew on subways by 3.5 percent, on buses by 3.9 percent and on commuter rail by 4.7 percent. Light-rail use increased by 8.3 percent, spurred in part by a new system in Charlotte, N.C., and growth in New Orleans, which is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

 

But some systems that raised fares last year, including those in Houston and Cincinnati, lost riders, which could be an ominous sign for the many systems that are raising fares and cutting service this year.

 

Although the federal stimulus law included $8.4 billion to help transit systems pay for construction, repairs and new train cars and buses, the money cannot, for the most part, be used to pay for operating expenses like salaries. So some systems are cutting routes, laying off workers and raising fares.

 

Now many transit advocates, who have long said that transit gets shortchanged by a federal government that devotes far more money to highways, are turning their attention to Congress, which could pass a new transportation bill as early as this fall.

 

David Goldberg, a spokesman for Transportation for America, a coalition of groups pushing for an overhaul of transportation policy, said lawmakers should take note of the higher ridership.

 

“This is the leading edge,” Mr. Goldberg said, “of a continuing surge in demand for public transportation and more walkable neighborhoods as the population ages, convenience and access become more critical and gas prices remain volatile.”

 

By MICHAEL COOPER

NY TIMES

March 9, 2009

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