An MBTA Customer Service Agent assists a T user at a CharlieCard machine.
In a world of $4-a-gallon gasoline prices, grocery bills that break the family piggy bank, a seemingly endless home foreclosure crisis, and rising anxiety about the unsettled state of the US economy, there is at least one winner: the MBTA.
In fiscal 2008, according to numbers to be released today by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, nearly 375 million people took public transportation, 21 million more riders than the state agency had in fiscal 2007, a 6 percent leap and the highest ridership total in the agency's 44-year history.
"Many tons of people, in fact," said Daniel A. Grabauskas, the MBTA's general manager. "It's pretty exciting. We were definitely trending toward a good year and it turned out to be a phenomenal year for ridership for the MBTA, a historic all-time high."
The fiscal 2008 ridership totals smashed the previous record from 2001, when the MBTA recorded more than 354 million riders. The largest increases last year, according to the agency, came from people riding buses and light rail, such as the Green Line. And because gas prices did not hit $4 a gallon until May - near the end of the fiscal year - transporta tion officials and analysts expect interest in public transportation to continue in the months ahead.
"It's apparent to me that the high price of gasoline has finally hit home for people and caused travel behavior changes that we did not see when gasoline was $2 a gallon or $3 a gallon," said Bernard Cohen, the state secretary of transportation. "Four dollars a gallon seems to be the turning point here in terms of people rethinking modes of travel."
What is happening in Boston is happening all across the country, according to data from the American Public Transportation Association. In 2007, 10.3 billion trips were taken on US public transportation - the highest total in 50 years. And this year, the group's spokeswoman Virginia Miller said, the trend is continuing, with US public transportation use rising 3.4 percent in the first quarter.
At that rate, Miller said, last year's national mark will not stand for long. But the high fuel prices driving people to their nearest train stations and bus stops is really a "double-edge sword," Miller said, presenting public transportation with new challenges, such as how to accommodate the new riders while adjusting to the same increases in fuel prices.
"More people in record numbers are choosing public transportation," Miller said. "However, just like high gas prices are affecting the family budget, so too do high fuel prices impact a transportation system's budget."
The MBTA's budget is especially troubled. The state agency recently had to deplete its rainy-day fund to plug a $75 million deficit for fiscal 2009. An arbitrator ordered it to shell out $150 million in wage increases and back pay over the next two years. And it is already carrying a weighty debt of some $5 billion.
"Ridership equals revenue," Grabauskas said, "insofar as I'm adding more people to existing service." But the agency's general manager concedes that the ridership growth alone cannot solve the MBTA's financial crunch, especially as it looks to expand service on certain bus lines and on the Blue Line this year.
The new service, long planned, comes at a fortunate time for the agency, Grabauskas said. With more people riding public buses and trains in Boston than they have in generations, the MBTA has a chance to convert commuters for good. And that would benefit everyone, reducing highway traffic, air pollution and the pace of global warming, said Eric Bourassa, a transportation policy analyst for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group.
"This is an opportunity where people are experimenting with public transportation," Bourassa said. "And if the T does a good job and provides good service, more people are going to use it and we're going to keep those riders. But if the T has to raise fares because of high debt costs and high fuel costs, or if they have to cut service because of that, then we will have missed that opportunity."
Bill O'Donnell, 78, of Cambridge, who was getting off a Red Line train at Park Street station yesterday afternoon said that although he owns a car, he usually rides the T because of "the price of gasoline and the density of traffic."
In the past few months, O'Donnell said, he has seen more people riding the T.
"As soon as the price of gas went up, I noticed an increase," O'Donnell said.
Many riders agreed yesterday that there was a spike in ridership and it was crowding the trains.
"I used to be able to sit down," said Reginald Busby, 40, of Quincy, who was riding a Red Line train heading into the city yesterday.
The construction worker said he noticed the jump in the number of passengers when the train he takes to work from Quincy Center around 6 a.m. started arriving full of riders.
"There's standing room only, even early in the morning," he said.
The MBTA, which last raised fares in January 2007, has no plans on doing so again any time soon. And Grabauskas says the agency plans to do whatever it can to keep people riding public transit, even if gas prices fall.
Fares for the subway are $1.70 with a Charlie Card and $2 without; bus fares are $1.25 with the card and $1.50 without.
In addition to adding bus service and expanding Blue Line service this year, Grabauskas said he is open to considering creative ways to fit more people onto existing trains. In Chicago, for example, where ridership increased by almost 7 percent last month, mass transit authorities are considering removing seats on some train cars to make room for more people.
It is too early to say, Grabauskas cautioned, whether the MBTA would consider a similar move. "Literally," he said, "I only learned of it in the past week."
But at a time when people are forced to squeeze into rush-hour trains in Boston, the agency is willing, Grabauskas said, to consider just about anything, including, possibly, seatless cars. "It certainly is an idea with some merit."