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More Empty Seats on Buses, Trains

After a record year in 2008, the number of people riding buses and trains dropped in 2009 as unemployment rose and fewer people traveled to work.

Last year, public transit ridership hit a 52-year high of 10.7 billion rides. This year, January-through-September ridership was down 4% from the first nine months of last year to 7.7 billion trips, according to new figures from the American Public Transportation Association.

The number of rides fell in 146 of 197 bus systems and in 50 of 64 rail systems from January through September, compared with the same period in 2008.

William Millar, the association's president, says Americans going to and from work make up 60% of transit use, so ridership drops as unemployment increases. Yet, he says, "the ridership fall is greater than expected because unemployment rose so quickly."

The national unemployment rate is 10%.

Lower ridership means more lost revenue for transit agencies already struggling financially.

Fares make up about a third of an agency's operating revenue. The rest comes from taxes and other local and state funding that has decreased dramatically because of the recession, Millar says.

As a result, 89% of transit agencies have raised fares or cut service, a June survey by the association found.

Those changes could discourage riders from returning in the future, Millar says.

Transit systems are struggling:

Cleveland. Bus ridership fell 11% in the first nine months of the year, and trips on the rail system dropped 15%.

Unemployment for the metropolitan area is 9.5%, but Joe Calabrese, the general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, says that doesn't tell the full story. He says people with jobs are taking furlough days and working fewer hours, so they are not riding the system as often.

The agency will take in $5 million less in fares this year and $19 million less in sales tax revenue, Calabrese says. In response, it raised its base fare for buses and trains 25 cents in September to $2.25, cut 12 smaller bus routes and reduced the frequency of buses on 15 other routes. Calabrese expects more cuts next year.

Colorado Springs. Bus ridership dropped 13% from January through October compared with the same time last year, says David Menter, a transit planning supervisor. The city's economic troubles are forcing a $6.1 million drop in its contribution to the transit agency to $2.6 million next year. To balance its budget, Mountain Metropolitan Transit in January will eliminate evening service after 6:15 p.m., all weekend service and four of its 22 routes, including express service.

"It will have life-changing consequences for our riders who are transit-dependent or who are elderly or disabled," Menter says. "We need to consider whether we should or shouldn't have a transit system. It's that severe."

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