In the world of transportation policy analysis, there is a lot of anticipation for the first quarter ridership reports on public transit. Most agencies ended 2008 with large increases in transit use. The larger demand placed pressure on budgets and had policymakers calling for higher taxes to expand service. The larger demand also had some suggesting that society had fundamentally shifted behavior away from the personal automobile, which has federal officials calling for massive spending increases in traditional transit and high speed rail with the next reauthorization bill.
In her weekly update,Joni Earl gave us a preview of Sound Transit's first quarter results: Despite the shaky economy, ridership on Sound Transit buses and trains was up the first three months of this year. Through March, Sound Transit trains and buses carried an average of about 55,500 every weekday, an increase of 10 percent from a year earlier. The average weekday boardings for ST Express buses increased 10 percent, Sounder commuter trains 5 percent, and Tacoma Link light rail 5 percent. In the month of March alone, ridership was up 6 percent from the same month a year earlier.
When compared to the same quarter last year, ridership is higher, but what Sound Transit does not say is overall transit demand is down. Sound Transit ended 2008 with an average use of 57,700 trips per day. During the first quarter of 2009, Earl says the agency now serves about 55,000 trips per day. Comparatively, that is nearly a 4 percent drop.
Given current fuel prices and high unemployment rates, transit demand should continue to fall throughout the rest of the year. This should relieve most of the pressure on transit budgets but I'm skeptical that policymakers will slow their call for higher taxes. The Legislature just passed SB 5433 , a measure that gives transit agencies the ability to raise car tabs by $20 per vehicle, subject to voter approval. The same bill also gives King County the authority to raise property taxes by 7.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, without asking voters, to increase transit service.
Just like honey bees in a spring garden, these new taxes just might be too much sweetener for lawmakers to resist.