WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- Public transit's a nice option and all, but do buses or trains do more to help a city? It depends on which city you're asking.
Even the most stalwart of public transportation supporters concede that public transportation is local transportation, so it's really up to the local community to decide what its wants. What the majority of local communities want -- or at least the members who head to the voting booths -- is more public transportation, period.
Subways have their merits, but whether they're worth more than buses depends on the cities voting for each kind of system.
The Washington-based transit advocacy clearinghouse at the Center for Transportation excellence has been keeping tabs on transit-related ballot initiatives and found that 87% passed muster with voters already this year. That's ahead of last year's 77% pace that saw 44 out of 57 transit-related ballot measures pass across the country.
That doesn't mean that the nation's firmly behind any one way to ride. According to the American Public Transportation, Americans took more than 3.5 billion trips on the nation's 15 heavy-rail subway systems, 463 million trips on its light rail systems and 446 million on its commuter rail lines. That's an 1.5% and 1.4% increase since 2009 for the first two, respectively, but a 1.3% dropoff for the commuter rail riders. Last year, both Hawaii's Oahu and Virginia's Farifax county approved new rail or rail-related projects.
Bus ridership, however, outpaced trains in subway cities with 3.7 billion trips and trumped all rail with 5.2 billion trips nationwide. Both of those are sharp declines, however, as big-city bus ridership dropped 2.9% and overall transit bus rides fell 2.4%. The only places where buses saw any gains were in cities of 100,000 or less, where ridership jumped 3.3%. California's Alameda County, Michigan's Branch, Genesee, Wayne and Macomb counties and Virginia's Fairfax County all voted for expanded bus service last year, but little Ponderay, Idaho, outdid them all by approving a fare-free, $500,000 bus system.
From a rider's perspective, the popularity and usefulness of buses and trains has a lot to do with the city they're in. In New York City, where the MetroCard is as much of a wallet mainstay as an ATM card, subway trips dwarfed those on Metropolitan Transit Authority buses 2.4 billion to 809 million last year. Los Angeles, meanwhile, is still adjusting to life with a subway, and bus trips still far outnumber those by either subway or light rail -- 358 million to 95.5 million. Chicago finds itself in the middle geographically and figuratively with 306 million bus trips that are the most on any form of public transportation, but not overly disproportionate to the 211 million trips on its subway system.
Unfortunately, there's no guarantee a train will draw more commuters and give residents more value for their fares than a spread of bus lines. Back in 2004, Denver voters approved $4.7 billion for a project called FasTracks that planned to add six light and commuter rail lines, 18 miles of bus lanes and numerous park-and-ride stations to the city's metro area by 2017. The project was supposed to be paid for through a 0.4% sales tax but, seven years later, a struggling economy took a bite out of those sales.
Rising construction costs and tightened safety requirements pushed the price tag to $6.5 billion and the proposed completion date closer to 2019. Though federal grants have helped somewhat, another bump in the sales tax may be required to finish a project critics say could have been completed less expensively with buses.
In Bethesda, Md., and other areas near Washington, D.C., a 20-stop Purple Line light rail system approved by Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2009 is slated to begin construction in 2014, finish by 2020 and cost roughly $1.9 billion. Proponents at proposed stops in Silver Springs, Langley and the University of Maryland College Park claim it will take 20,000 vehicles off the road and pick up 60,000 riders each day. Opponents counter that transit officials could have reached the same destination by implementing less-costly "bus rapid transit" with just as few stops and dedicated bus lanes that wouldn't require trails and buildings to be moved for rail space. The Federal Transit Administration still hasn't signed off on it, leaving federal funding up in the air.
That's no small detail considering Congress just passed a six-month extension of current public transit funding, but House Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., has proposed a long-term plan that would cut public transportation funding by 35%. This comes as flat or decreased local and regional funding for 83% of the nation's public transportation agencies transportation agencies forces them to raise fares and cut services, according to APTA.
In addition, 85% of transit agencies have seen flat or decreased capital funding, forcing 31% to put off buying buses or trains and 20% to delay maintenance. Under those circumstances, cities see more value in cheaper public transit options. That should give buses the clear edge over trains, but the numbers say otherwise.
Building or bulking up a new heavy-rail subway line would cost a whole lot more than adding a few buses, but light rail costs manage to keep pace with those of bus rapid transit stop for stop. Dedicated busways average $13.5 million per mile, according to the Government Accountability Office, while light rail runs up a $34.8 average tab for covering the same stretch.
The problem lies at the edges. The price of dedicated busways in the U.S. -- such as Pittsburgh's West Busway or parts of Boston's Silver Line -- range from $7 million to $55 million per mile. Light rail tops out at $118 million per mile, but can also cost as little as $12.4 million. Operating costs can also vary widely by city, with light rail costing almost double bus rapid transit per trip in Los Angeles, but buses cost five times more to operate per trip than light rail in San Diego.
Whichever choice a city makes, buses and trains have a far greater impact beyond simple ridership. Roughly 74% of private sector businesses that serve the public transit industry say their business either flattened or collapsed thanks to economic instability and fluctuating transportation funding, according to the APTA. When business did decrease, it was off by an average of 25%.
Beyond Congress, there are public transportation questions going to a vote in Avon, Colo.; Durham County, N.C.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Clark County and Seattle, Wash.; and Washington state in general. While buses and trains are part of the discussion, commuters won't get to debate which gives cities and regions a better ride unless they pay that first, hefty fare at the ballot box.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.