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About 2.5 billion trips were taken on U.S. public transportation systems in third-quarter 2010, down 0.7 percent compared with trips taken during the same 2009 period, according to American Public Transportation Association data. The slight decline reflects the slow economic recovery, although many individual systems did post gains.
Light-rail ridership decreased slightly, or about 0.2 percent, but 13 of 27 systems bucked that trend. And, for the first nine months of 2010, light-rail ridership grew 1.5 percent. Light-rail systems in four cities posted double-digit ridership growth: New Orleans, 61 percent; Phoenix, 14.1 percent; Portland, Ore., 12.9 percent; and Seattle – King County Department of Transportation, 16.9 percent, and Sound Transit, 57.2 percent.
Sound Transit attributes its ridership spike to a light-rail extension to Sea-Tac International Airport that opened in December 2009.
"Actually, we're a little bit down from where we hoped to be at this point, but we attribute that to the lousy economy," says Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray.
In the commuter-rail realm, total ridership fell 1.1 percent, but 14 of 27 systems posted increases. Among those trending upward: Utah Transit Authority's (UTA) 2-year-old FrontRunner service, which posted a 15.2 percent ridership gain. Soon after FrontRunner launched in May 2008, gasoline prices soared to more than $4 a gallon. That, combined with I-15 corridor congestion, prompted many commuters to try FrontRunner, says UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter. After gas prices dropped and a new highway opened in late 2008, FrontRunner's ridership dipped.
"We went below original projections and bottomed out around May 2009, carrying only 3,700 riders per day," Carpenter says. "Today, we're actually back to what our original projections were," about 5,300 weekday riders as of October 2010.
UTA officials expect ridership to pick up in 2011, as more commuters realize the conveniences of public transit, Carpenter says. What'll also help: UTA will open two light-rail lines this year.
Meanwhile, heavy-rail ridership increased 1.7 percent, year over year. Systems registered the highest increases in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 9.9 percent; Baltimore, 7.2 percent; and New York City (Staten Island), 6.3 percent.
— Julie Sneider