I want the Capital District Transportation Authority to set a ridership record, if only because it would be a better story.
CDTA officials feel like they’re facing record demand on the routes that are already the most popular. Not far down the road, that means cuts are likely on less popular routes so more buses can roll on crowded routes.
But CDTA probably won’t set a ridership record when its financial year ends on Monday. It will be a few grams shy of a kilo of topping the 16.38 million people hauled in 1983-84.
Why not? As with much else about life upstate, you can’t go wrong blaming the weather.
Ridership rose only 1 percent in February, after seeing a pretty consistent 6 percent increase each month since last April.
Ridership takes a hit, not surprisingly once you think about it, during winter storms — and this year’s Valentine’s Day storm was a doozy, so intense in the wee hours that even CDTA’s bus drivers had trouble getting to work that morning. School-bus drivers can go back to bed on a snow day, but CDTA drivers can’t.
“Ridership falls when storms keep people home from work or school,” CDTA CEO Carm Basile acknowledged in a report to the authority’s board this week. “Road conditions make it tough for us to operate reliably as our network of stations, shelters and stops are difficult to access until our employees [and cooperative arrangements] get them clear.”
The month saw 110 canceled trips — a tenfold increase from a year ago. Nearly 90 percent of the missed trips were on Feb. 14, that storm’s undertow.
The snow and wind was most intense in night’s darkest hours — rest assured, the people who deliver this newspaper remember it vividly. More than a foot of snow fell after dark; if you have a driveway, you woke up and your heart sank.
There were also 83 accidents involving CDTA vehicles during the month, twice as many as last February.
“The weather is the main factor, with back-to-back snowstorms and extremely cold temperatures pushing these numbers,” Basile said.
This year’s increased ridership is mostly on core routes like BusPlus between Albany and Schenectady. The authority has added more buses on its major routes, but it still isn’t enough.
“We know demand is exceeding capacity — still — on many of our trunk routes,” Basile said.
Some are riding because of gas prices or not having a car, and some for convenience. Other growth has come from “universal access agreements” with area colleges. Those deals have colleges pay so students can ride for free.
The growth in core urban corridors will require CDTA to start looking at places to cut bus service — the little-used routes, rural services and even longtime neighborhood routes. That will have to be on the table, Basile said, before another budget cycle rolls around.
“That will be a difficult conversation to have, but we need to have it,” he told the board. “Some of our demand is just exploding.”
Time was when the federal government might have ridden to the rescue, but those days are gone. Today, the feds don’t even reimburse the annual purchase cost of new buses, as they once did.
The federal transportation bill expires in September and presents a chance for change — but it would require a dramatic reversal in a lot of legislators’ philosophies for federal transit aid to be seen as relevant to the national good.
Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. He can be reached at 885-6705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.