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SEPTA and other cash-strapped mass transit systems across the country gained steam in their argument for a federal transportation bill yesterday with a report that national ridership in 2011 reached its second-highest level since 1957.

The American Public Transportation Association reported that American riders took 10.4 billion trips last year, trailing only 2008 when gas prices spiked above $4 per gallon. The national organization attributed the growth to gas prices remaining high, more people returning to work and innovations in technology that keep riders informed.

“There should be no doubt Americans need and want public transportation. Congress needs to pass a well funded, multimodal, multi-year transportation bill that will help meet current and growing demand,” APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy said in the report.

SEPTA, the nation’s sixth-largest transit agency, experienced its highest ridership since 1989 in the year that ended June 30, 2011. In February, the number of passenger trips rose for the 19th consecutive month and was up 3 percent from February 2010.

A SEPTA spokesman said the agency hopes the news will send a message to state and federal lawmakers.

“That’s something that we can always point to as a sign of growth and a sign of SEPTA’s importance in the region,” spokesman Andrew Busch said.

Busch noted that despite the ridership growth, SEPTA’s capital budget is just $300 million, down 25 percent from three years ago. He said the increase in passengers puts more stress on an aging infrastructure.

“The way to handle that is to keep up with our maintenance program,” he said.

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