While Albany politicians are slowly getting around to debating a bailout package for the MTA, New Yorkers are making their voices heard indirectly by riding the rails in record numbers. According to New York City Transit, subway ridership figures for 2008 hit 1.62 billion trips, the highest total since 1950 and an increase of 61.1 million trips — or 3.9 percent — over 2007.
Overall, New York City Transit reported an overall total ridership figure of 2.37 billion last year. That figure includes all agency-operated bus trips as well as the subway total. Most of that growth came in the early months of 2008 when city job numbers were on the rise and tourism remained strong. Whether those trends continue into 2009 remains to be seen, but the job loss in the financial sector will stunt transit numbers this year.
Meanwhile, the trains during the week remain packed to the gills. Average weekday ridership for the subway system sat at 5.2 million passengers in 2008, the highest total since 1951.
Transit officials were quick to praise the role the MTA plays in moving New York City while pushing the need to fund the MTA. “The sustained ridership growth in our subway and bus network is proof of the vital role NYC Transit has in moving the region forward in an environmentally sustainable manner,” Elliot G. Sander, MTA executive director and CEO, said. “The improvements we have made to the infrastructure, including the purchase of new buses and subway cars, are paying dividends, and the ridership growth we’ve seen is proof positive how important a fully funded capital plan is to the continued reliability and viability of the system and to the region as a whole.”
On a closer level, ridership growth patterns followed population increases. Parts of the L line saw growth at rates of around 10 percent, and the line as a whole saw ridership increase by 8.5 percent. Stations in Long Island City, the Rockaways, the Lower East Side and Dumbo all saw growth between 15 and 19 percent as well, and the Select Bus Service in the Bronx witnessed an increase of nearly 10 percent.
“The success of Select Bus Service demonstrates how the use of innovative technology combined with the cooperation of our city and state partners can yield enormous benefits for our customers and for service,” VP of Buses Joseph J. Smith, Sr. said. “SBS is the blue print for how we’d like to improve bus service city wide.”
These numbers — and grand expansion plans — are all well and good, but there’s an alarming undercurrent to this latest news. Right as MTA ridership is exploding, the agency is going to have to cut service and raise fares because they are out of money. Now, sure, the agency hasn’t, in the past, been forthcoming with their finances. They’ve squandered good will and public trust, but the public-benefit corporation also can’t run a system at a break-even point with fares held artificially low.
We the New York public want transit fares to be low. We want the $2 ride because it maximizes the system’s accessibility. But for the MTA, relying on the vagaries of property taxes and a disproportionately high percentage of the fare box revenue for operating expenses, to be profitable, they would have to raise the fares substantially without government support.
These numbers show just how important transit is to New York City. Albany cannot let the system fail. New York — the state and the city — won’t be able to weather the storm of bad transit service.