Public transit advocates argue that the continuous cuts to bus service in recent years are critically undermining the entire system. "Basically, you're running the system into the ground, making it a transit system that doesn't benefit people," says Margaret Donahoe, legislative director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance. "The more we keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away, eventually we're not going to have a bus system at all."
In recent years, as bus service has been curtailed, ridership has (not surprisingly) declined significantly. It's difficult to effectively scrutinize the most recent figures because last year's transit strike, which halted buses for 46 days, seriously skewed statistics. But in 2003, Metro Transit buses carried 67.2 million passengers--nearly 10 percent fewer than just three years earlier, when fares reached a peak of 73.5 million.
Protesting bus service cuts and fare hikes, April 6, at the Capitol
"We were on a growth spurt there," notes Metro Transit spokesman Gibbons. "The legislature was able to provide more money to regional transit and as a result we were able to grow our ridership. What does this tell us? There's an appetite for public transit among the citizens."
Allen Lovejoy, of St. Paul's planning and economic development department, concurs with this assessment. He says that the city has documented the need for a new route going from downtown St. Paul to the Maplewood Mall, as well as a line providing north-south service on Lexington Parkway. "We could grow ridership and service fairly substantially if we had the resources," he notes.
Adding new lines may be a pipe dream at this point, but there is some hope that the proposed cuts can still be stymied. A consensus has been building across the state that significant dollars need to be pumped into transportation in the coming years if the state is going to avoid severely detrimental economic and social impacts. Even the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, an organization not exactly known for its belief in government largesse, has endorsed a 10-cent increase in the gas tax.
There are currently several different legislative proposals pending that would fill the Metropolitan Council's $60-million shortfall and provide a substantial permanent funding source for transit projects. Most notable is a bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Murphy, a Red Wing Democrat and chair of the transportation committee. His proposal would raise the gas tax by 10 cents and create a new half-cent metro sales tax dedicated to transit projects.
Murphy is adamant that the proposed bus cutbacks will not go forward. "I think it's an abomination to let that happen," he says. "We're going to lose ridership by the hordes. If we're ever going to get a handle on mass transit in Minnesota, we can't let this happen."