Surprise - More rider bad news for mass transit companies


When gasoline spiked above $4 a gallon, mass transit companies across the country saw a sharp increase in passengers; good news, right? Well, for many such as the St. Louis, Mo system, the increase was bad news. You see, like many American bus, train and subway systems, it charges less per ride than it costs, and the difference is made up with public funding. Even the extra money paid by the new customers isn't enough to offset the rise in oil and electricity prices and declines in tax-based public funding.

Ironically, systems that already were running near capacity are the ones most hurt by this increase, as they would be forced to add employees and vehicles to expand. Systems that routinely run mostly empty would do much better, as those extra customers don't require more investment. In my home town of Columbus, as recently as 2006 the bus system was charging $1.50 per passenger, but its cost per passenger was $2.43, the difference funded by public funding. Since empty buses were all too common here before the gas crisis, increased ridership has been a boon to its business.

All transportation systems have seen costs skyrocket in step with gas, diesel and electricity increases.
According to the New York Times, the St. Louis systems has been forced to cut over 2,000 stops by the end of March to compensate for the unexpected increase in ridership. (Yes, I know that this sounds absurd. It IS absurd.) Washington, New York, San Francisco and other major metropolitan systems are also experiencing blood on the tracks.

Mass transit systems across the country are looking for relief in the stimulus package currently being chewed on, like a bone in a dog pound, by the U.S. Senate. Is it too simplistic to suggest that this would be a good time to start running these systems in a more business-like manner, with tokens selling at a price that would reflect the true cost of the trip?

Originally published