U.S. use of mass transit increased in 2012

Ridership benefits from growing employment, consistent service levels

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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.

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 Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29 hadn't crippled transit systems throughout the Northeast.

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 American Public Transportation Association.

An improving economy brings riders back, but transit systems still face funding constraints.

Federal funding for transit depends on gasoline tax receipts, which fell in recent years. State and local funding comes from sources including sales and property taxes. When the economy soured, consumers cut spending and home prices plummeted, hammering transit revenue.

With revenue down, systems cut service. Sacramento eliminated some bus routes and light-rail service on nights and weekends. That led to reduced ridership, compounded by weekly furloughs of state workers, who ride mass transit in large numbers.

Voting for revenue

Increasingly, state and local governments are asking voters to approve new transit revenue at the ballot box; 49 of the 62 transit ballot measures nationwide passed 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 led to deep service cuts and fare increases, the combination of which produces lower ridership.

Voters twice rejected a sales tax increase from 9.5 percent to 9.8 percent to fund Pierce Transit in Tacoma. Washington has no income tax, and its sales taxes are higher than those of most states. Spokesman Lars 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.