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T fare hike likely despite ridership high

Stronger economy cited in record trip numbers

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By Martine Powers
Globe Correspondent / July 28, 2011

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Bolstered by a rise in weekend travel, ridership on MBTA trains, buses, and ferries hit a new record this year, according to numbers released yesterday by the transit agency.

While the record was a coup for MBTA administrators, the increased revenue from the boost will likely not be enough to eliminate the need for an eventual fare hike, said Richard Davey, the T’s general manager.

Between July 2010 and June 2011, the MBTA logged about 379 million passenger trips, a 2.1 percent increase over last year.

Davey suggested a number of reasons for the increase: volatile gas prices, an improved job market, a resurgence of interest in travel, and smartphone applications that have taken the guesswork out of arrival times and delays.

“We’ve really seen how customers are appreciating our real-time data amenities,’’ Davey said.

It is unclear how the increase in public transportation ridership will affect future operations of the MBTA, Davey said. In the past, he has said he believes a fare hike would be necessary - the last one occurred in 2007 - and yesterday’s numbers do little to change that prospect; the added revenue from a modest increase in riders will not be enough to offset the T’s $161 million budget gap for next fiscal year, he said.

Davey also said he expects that a fare hike would have a negative impact on next year’s ridership numbers.

“While I think it’s prudent to raise fares from time to time, it typically does drive some ridership away,’’ Davey said.

Taisha O’Bryant, vice chairwoman of the T Riders Union, agreed. Ridership numbers would go right back down if MBTA administrators raise prices, cut service, or skimp on maintenance in an effort to save money, she said.

“This is great that ridership is up,’’ O’Bryant said. “But if [the MBTA] would like to maintain or increase ridership, they need to uphold their end of the bargain by making sure that the T is on time and make sure there’s no fare hike.’’

This year’s ridership figure breaks the previous record, logged in 2008, by 91,000 trips.

Much of the increase this year was a result of the popularity of weekend trains. Average ridership for the heavy rail subways - the Red, Orange, and Blue lines - increased by 10 percent on Saturdays and by 4.7 percent on Sundays. Davey said some of this surge could be attributed to the MBTA’s decision to provide more frequent weekend service on the Orange Line.

Growth in weekend ridership was even higher for the Silver Line, which is centered at South Station and runs to Logan International Airport, Roxbury, and the Seaport District, which has seen a surge in new restaurants and other attractions. Saturday traffic on that line rose by 61 percent.

“The waterfront is really becoming a destination for our customers,’’ Davey said.

Brian Kane, budget and policy analyst at the independent MBTA Advisory Board, attributed the rise to economic factors. The popularity of trains on weekends is likely because residents and visitors have more discretionary money to spend visiting restaurants, shops, and museums. The weekday increase is a product of higher employment rates, he said.

“When people don’t have jobs to commute to, they don’t commute,’’ Kane said. “This suggests that the economy is doing better.’’

Increased traffic on MBTA trains is largely in spite of, not because of, the service on the trains, Kane said. Passengers must still suffer out-of-date trains that often break down, he said.

“It’s a testament to the fact that the economy is great, but it’s also a testament to the fact that we’ll put up with a lot,’’ Kane said.

“Just imagine what the ridership would be like if the thing functioned properly.’’

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.