IT has come a long way to encourage mass transit

The past 15 years have been good for public transit across the country after years of neglect.

Nationwide, public transit ridership increased 38 percent from 1995 to 2008, compared with a 21 percent increase in highway miles traveled and a 13 percent population increase.

Here in South Sound, Intercity Transit has rebounded from the devastating budget and service cuts caused by the passage of Initiative 695 in 1999. In the past three years alone, the use of IT buses and vans has climbed 50 percent, which, along with other performance measures, resulted in IT being recognized at the nation’s top midsized transit agency this year by the American Public Transportation Association.

Here in South Sound, members of the public have responded to rising gas prices by giving public transit a try. And when they do, they often return to the bus more frequently and leave their cars parked at home.

Intercity Transit, under the capable leadership of general manager Mike Harbour, also made a smart tactical decision to increase services on major urban corridors, increasing service frequency to every 15 minutes, compared with the previous 30 minutes. Overnight, riding the bus became more convenient and less time-consuming.

“Fifteen minute service is relatively rare,” noted William Millar, the president of the American Public Transportation Association who was in town last week to help celebrate the IT award.

He said many transit agencies make the mistake of spreading their services too thin, rather than concentrating on their core service area. The public is well-served by the decision Intercity Transit made to concentrate service on their urban routes.

While last week was a time to celebrate the recent successes at IT, and public transit in general, tough challenges lie ahead, Millar and Harbour said.

On the federal level, legislative leaders need to do a better job of recognizing the important role public transit plays in building sustainable communities, fighting climate change and reducing foreign dependency on oil.

Oftentimes, when Congress doles out money for transportation projects, public transit investments are shortchanged. The nation will never curb its carbon dioxide emissions to acceptable levels without investing in new, environmentally-friendly ways of developing communities and moving people from Point A to Point B, whether its buses, light rail or transit-oriented development.

Only about 3 cents of the 18.6 cents raised by the federal gas tax is allotted to mass transit, Millar said. That percentage must increase in the decades ahead, if we are to transition into a new, green energy economy.

On the local front, IT faces tough economic times because it depends so heavily on sales tax revenues for its operations. A boost in the sale tax might be necessary to keep growing IT. The community would suffer, if declining revenues caused IT to cut back services again.