In terms of ridership, it is the best of times for public transit. In 2008, Americans made 10.7 billion trips on buses and trains, the highest annual ridership since 1956.
Public transit remains dense with commuters who dumped their cars when the price of gas made driving to work untenable last year. Millions continue to enjoy the convenience, lower cost and environmental friendliness of transit even after gas prices have dropped.
But even with impressive gains in riders -- 6.5 percent over the previous year -- this is also the worst of times for transit.
Transportation for America, a coalition of commuter advocacy groups, reports that 90 percent of bus and rail systems have to raise fares or cut services to survive even as demand grows. "Stranded at the Station: The Impact of the Financial Crisis in Public Transportation" provides a snapshot of what the proposed service cuts will mean for commuters.
Though relatively healthy compared to transit authorities in other cities, the Port Authority of Allegheny County isn't immune to the trend. It recovered most of the riders it lost after its last fare increase. Its popularity will be tested, however, when fares go up again in January and when the authority realigns its routes to improve the transit system's overall efficiency.
The county's system anticipates a $29 million deficit in 2010-11 and $45 million in 2012, a crisis of funding that must be met by more than service reductions and route conversions.
Transportation for America calls for a more robust federal and state investment by arguing that such investment inevitably generates jobs and economic growth for the community. But in this economic climate, it isn't clear there is enough political will to do the right thing.
Congress is due to draft a new six-year transportation bill that could transform America's way of travel into something reflecting the opportunities of a greener, more efficient economy where mass transit is at the center and not at the periphery of our priorities. If we want it, through, we have to be ready to pay for it.