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The Wheels on the Bus Go ... Backwards

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The month of June brought yet another ridership record for the transit agency here in Boston, known to one and all as "the T." For the year ending June 2011, ridership on the T surged by 2.1 percent.

There is no crystal clear reason why T ridership is breaking all-time records. The economy here, while better than in the rest of the country, certainly isn't booming. High gas prices are a likely contributor – the T’s recent previous ridership peak was in 2008, when gas prices also hit $4 per gallon. My own favorite theory is the spread of smart phone apps with real-time arrival and departure information, which, along with things like wi-fi on commuter rail trains, take full advantage of transit’s compatibility with the digital world.

What is clear, however, is that the growth in T ridership will be temporary unless the agency can find some way to balance its budget. Even in the midst of record ridership, the T is considering a new round of fare hikes that will likely cause some of the T’s new riders to go right back to driving.

The T’s dilemma is one that is affecting transit agencies all across the country. Here we are, in the midst of the worst recession since the Great One, at a time of high gas prices, when people are desperately in need of cheap, reliable transportation and are increasingly looking for new  transportation alternatives. This, one would think, is a golden opportunity to get people off the roads, curbing congestion, saving oil, and reducing pollution.

And what happens instead? Transit agencies have their budgets squeezed so hard – as a result of declining local and state support, health care obligations for current and former workers, and rising fuel prices – that many of them are forced to jack-up fares and cut service.

My home town of Pittsburgh is Exhibit A. This past March, Pittsburgh’s Port Authority transit agency initiated a massive round of service cuts – eliminating 29 routes altogether and reducing service on many more, leaving some former transit riders stranded and others forced to wait as several full buses pass them by on their rush-hour commutes.

Pittsburgh’s transit cuts have already led to a whopping 9.5 percent decline in ridership in April/May 2011 compared to the year before, but have still not been enough to stop the fiscal bleeding.

The situation in Pittsburgh is largely the result of the state’s failure to provide adequate financial support for public transportation, even as the state’s gasoline tax is constitutionally dedicated to roads. It is an example of the dated, 1950s-era policy priorities that still govern our transportation system, even in the midst of rapidly changing transportation priorities.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Pittsburgh transit cuts is that the city has had tremendous success in recent years in the revitalization of urban neighborhoods on the South Side, in Lawrenceville, in East Liberty and elsewhere. People, particularly the young, increasingly want to live in the city again. Yet, the city’s evaporating transit infrastructure is making it harder for new and long-time residents alike to make a go of it.

One hopes that public officials at the local, state and federal levels will come to recognize the central role that public transportation can play in addressing our nation’s challenges. The rise in transit ridership in places like Boston shows that the potential for growth is real – all we need to do is make the right investments.

Otherwise, we may have to find more creative solutions. As one frustrated, wheelchair-bound Pittsburgh bus riderreasoned to Msnbc.com, “if the Legislature won't fund buses, at least it could legalize hitchhiking.