WASHINGTON Mass transit ridership increased nationwide and in Sacramento last year, according to new numbers released Monday, an indication that more people are going back to work and high gasoline prices are changing how they get there.
Many transit systems posted large gains, but others saw a decline in riders, reflecting the unevenness of the economic recovery, according to a report from the American Public Transportation Association. Declines in the tax revenue that support transit systems have forced many of them to cut back service at a time when commuters weary of fluctuating prices at the pump are seeking an alternative to driving.
"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.
Sacramento posted an overall 1.5 percent increase in ridership in 2012 to 27.3 million trips, including a 7.1 percent increase in light rail, to 13.9 million trips, according to the public transportation association's numbers.
U.S. transit systems recorded 10.5 billion trips last year, the second-highest level since 1957.
"People have found transit to be a good value," said Michael Melaniphy, the president and chief executive of the association.
Paying for it remains a challenge, however.
When the economy slipped into recession, consumers cut back spending and home prices plummeted, hammering sales and property taxes, two main sources of transit revenue. At the federal level, transit funding depends on gasoline tax receipts, which have declined as people drive less and cars become more fuel efficient.
Wiley said his agency did "everything we could" to avoid service cuts it tapped reserve funds, raised fares twice and reduced staff and operating budgets.
But it wasn't enough, as lower sales-tax revenue in 2009 and 2010 led the agency to curtail bus and light-rail service on nights and weekends. The reduced service led to reduced ridership, Wiley said, compounded by weekly furloughs of state government workers, who ride mass transit in large numbers. About 60 percent of transit trips are to and from work, according to the public transportation association.
Wiley said the sacrifices paid off, and now the agency is financially stable. As the economy regained strength last year, sales-tax revenue rebounded, and RT in September extended operating hours and frequencies of light rail and bus service on weekends and Saturdays on key routes.
"We're focused on adding where it's going to be more productive," Wiley said.
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."
Wiley said RT is considering asking voters to approve a sales-tax increase in November 2014 to fund improvements, including a streetcar line connecting West Sacramento to downtown, and a future extension of light-rail service to Sacramento International Airport.
A poll last year found 63 percent approval for a sales-tax increase to fund transit; such measures require a two-thirds majority in California.
"I think we will be able to get there," Wiley said.
The agency is in the middle of construction to extend the light-rail system's Blue Line to Cosumnes River College a project funded in large part by the federal government.