Transit ridership up nationallyby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
The new national transit ridership numbers are being released Monday by APTA, the American Public Transportation Association. Transit ridership in this country is up. Higher gasoline prices appear to be part of the reason. A check with some Twin Cities riders shows parking costs are also a factor.
St. Paul, Minn. — There's no threat rising transit ridership will cause congestion to melt away like a snow bank on a sunny day. Vehicles, most of them with one driver, still account for the vast majority of daily commuter trips in this country. However American Public Transportation Association president William Millar says transit ridership grew to more than 10 billion trips last year. "You have to go back almost 50 years to find a time when Americans used public transit so often," he says.
Twin Cities transit ridership is up as well. Metro Transit officials say there were more than 73 million bus and train passenger trips last year, up 6 percent from the previous year.
Metro Transit is aiming for 75 million passenger trips this year, and they say ridership so far is running ahead of projection.
The Washington, D.C.-based APTA is a trade group. It represents the country's transit operators and the companies that make and sell buses and trains.
Besides rising gas prices, the transit ridership increase, William Millar says, is due to better and cleaner equipment.
Transit customers also appear to be reacting to pocket book issues.
A 94B Metro Transit express bus rider, who gives her name as Rene, says her employer moved company offices to downtown St. Paul from the suburbs, and she's seeing more of her coworkers on the bus. "Parking close to our building is much more expensive that it was before and it's pretty common to have new people from office taking the bus," she says.
For all the positive ridership news there's a sizable financial pothole ahead for transit.
The federal highway trust fund, the kitty from which comes money for new transit systems, is running dry.
One projection shows the trust fund out of money by the end of the decade.
That's also bad news for road and bridge partisans. The trust fund money helps pay for it all.
The situation is so serious that President Bush has appointed a panel of experts to recommend what to do.
Millar's recommendation is simple. Increase the federal portion of the fuel tax now at 18.4 cents a gallon. "The funding sources for the highway trust fund have not been increased in 14 years. There's very little else in our life that is the same price as it was 14 years ago," Millar says.
This should sound familiar. The raise the gas tax mantra is also falling off the lips of a growing number of Minnesota lawmakers and private sector interests.
They're watching the state transportation infrastructure crumble, and they're measuring the repair cost against a 20 cent a gallon state gas tax that hasn't been raised in 20 years.
There's a more immediate financial pothole ahead for Twin Cities Metro Transit. It's about $8 million dollars in size, and ironically it's due to a decline in Minnesota vehicle sales. A good share of the sales tax collected on motor vehicle sales goes to transit.
Governor Tim Pawlenty says he's willing - if lawmakers agree - to find money to patch the hole.
It's too strong to say that Minnesota's transit funding always seems to be on life support.
There is after all a $40 million borrowing proposal before lawmakers this session that would be a down payment on the proposed Central Corridor light rail line between St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Furthermore, last week the proposed North Star commuter rail service from downtown Minneapolis to northwest suburbs moved forward with a $107 million agreement to purchase permanent rail easements from Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
And there are various bus rapid transit initiatives on the drawing broad, however their progress appears stymied at the moment.
Bus rider Valerie Huback takes it all in stride. The carless and thus committed daily bus rider waiting for the 16A in downtown St. Paul says the state always seems to be in catchup mode. "Minnesota just tends to be behind on large public trends, whether it's transportation or fashion. . . But I think we're doing a good job with the money we have," Huback says.
Taxpayer sentiment on transit funding is not easy to assess. Minnesota voters last fall gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to turning all of the motor vehicle sales tax revenue over to transportation including transit projects. Voters may have another chance to express their transportation wishes.
There's an effort by some lawmakers this session to give people a chance to vote on increasing the sales tax to help pay for transportation projects.
- Morning Edition, 03/12/2007, 7:25 a.m.