WASHINGTON — Mass transit ridership increased nationwide last year, according to new numbers Monday, an indication that more people are going back to work and high gasoline prices are changing how they get there.
However, a closer look at the American Public Transportation Association’s ridership report reveals that while many transit systems posted large gains, others saw a decline, reflecting the unevenness of the economic recovery. And declines in the state, local and federal tax revenues that support transit systems have forced many of them to cut back service.
“Just like everybody else that saw the impacts of the recession, we did, too,” said Lars Erickson, a spokesman for Pierce Transit in Tacoma, Wash.
U.S. transit systems recorded 10.5 billion trips last year, the second-highest level since 1957. The numbers would have been even higher if not for Hurricane Sandy, which crippled transit systems throughout the Northeast in late October.
About 60 percent of transit trips are to and from work, according to the public transportation association, and volatile gasoline prices have driven many commuters to seek alternatives.
“People have found transit to be a good value,” said Michael Melaniphy, the president and chief executive of the association.
An improving economy has brought riders back, but transit systems still face funding constraints.
“If they want increased service, we’re going to have to increase revenue to support that,” said Mike Wiley, the general manager of the Sacramento Regional Transit District in California.
At the federal level, transit funding depends on gasoline tax receipts, which have declined in recent years. At the state and local level, funding comes from a variety of sources, including sales and property taxes. When the economy turned sour, consumers cut back spending and home prices plummeted, hammering two main sources of transit revenue.
With revenue down, systems had to cut service. Sacramento eliminated some bus routes and light rail service on nights and weekends. The reduced service led to reduced ridership, compounded by weekly furloughs of state government workers, who ride mass transit in large numbers.
Increasingly, state and local governments are asking voters to approve new transit revenue at the ballot box. The failure of such measures last year in Atlanta and Los Angeles grabbed a lot of attention, but voters approved 49 of the 62 transit ballot measures nationwide last year, Melaniphy said.
“We hear no one will pay more taxes for transportation,” he said. “In the toughest economic times in our lifetime, the voters are trusting their transit systems.”
But not everywhere. Efforts to fund transit service through sales-tax increases have struggled in Tacoma, and decreased revenue has led to deep service cuts and fare increases, the combination of which produces lower ridership.
Voters have twice rejected a sales-tax increase from 9.5 percent to 9.8 percent to fund Pierce Transit. Washington state has no income tax, and its sales taxes are higher than those of most states. Erickson said that was a challenge.
“It’s not that people don’t want public transportation, they just don’t like sales taxes,” he said.
Sacramento’s Wiley said his agency was considering asking voters to approve a sales-tax increase in November 2014 to fund transit improvements. Such measures require a two-thirds majority in California, and a poll last year found 63 percent approval for such a measure.
“I think we will be able to get there,” Wiley said.
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