Demand for Transit Rises, and Service May Shrink? Really?

Gas prices dropping. Unemployment rising. And still Americans rode subways, buses and commuter railroads in record numbers in the third quarter of this year in record numbers. In Minnesota, the third quarter of 2008 saw a 7.4 percent rise in public transit use in the metro area, totaling 22.3 million rides in all. Nationwide, buses, light rail, subways and commuter railroads saw a 6.5 percent spike, the largest quarterly increase in 25 years.

According to Bob Gibbons of Metro Transit, Twin Cities ridership over the past four years is up about 17 percent, but has only been about a 2.5 percent increase in routes and service on light rail and buses. So it’s harder to find a seat, and the system is getting strained.

There’s not doubt that our region’s bus system is facing a similar strain. Despite strong public opposition, the cost of riding a Metro Transit regular-route bus and the Hiawatha Light Rail went up 25 cents starting on October 1, 2008. Our fares were already much higher than fares in our peer regions, and the Metropolitan Council is considering another 50 cent fare increase in 2009.

Why? The Metropolitan Council projects an $80-90 million deficit in its two year transit operating budget. Aside from the 50 cent fare increase, the Council is also exploring service cuts.

In a tough economy, people depend on transit to help them save on household expenses and redirect those resources toward housing, education, health care, and other needs. There’s no doubt that we have a state budget deficit. Still, it seems strange that transit may face fare increases or service cuts, while the road funding component of the 2008 transportation law will not be cut (mainly because gas taxes and vehicle registration fees are constitutionally dedicated to “highway purposes”).

Transit for Livable Communities and the Transit Partners coalition plans to work with the Council to secure more money for the regional bus system in the coming legislative session. Stay tuned, or contact us for ways to get involved.

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