Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
For the first time in a decade, fewer people are taking the bus in Albuquerque.
Passenger boardings on city buses and vans fell 5 percent last year – the first decline in at least 10 years and a steeper drop than the national average.
In fact, Albuquerque’s ridership hit a four-year low in fiscal 2015, at just 12.4 million boardings, according to city records.
Bruce Rizzieri, director of Albuquerque’s transit system, said he believes cheaper gas is encouraging people to drive more.
His department is still analyzing the ridership data to see whether the decline is more pronounced on any particular routes or at certain times of day.
“I think people are feeling a little richer,” Rizzieri said Friday. “They have programmed into their budget so much money for transportation, and now that money can be used for driving.”
Albuquerque’s decline in bus and van ridership was steeper than the nation’s. Bus ridership across the country fell about 2 percent over the most recent fiscal year, according to data released by the American Public Transportation Association, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
Total ridership on public transit – including rail, trolleys and buses – was flat nationally.
In Albuquerque, the decline followed years of growth. Passenger boardings have climbed 46 percent over the past 10 years, or more than three times as fast as the city population.
Some routes remain incredibly busy, riders say, particularly along Central Avenue – the old Route 66 that connects the International District, Nob Hill, Downtown and Old Town.
“Some ’66’ buses on Central just go past people waiting for the bus because it’s so packed,” Albuquerque resident Elaine Yellowhorse said last week as she waited for a bus Downtown.
Donn Shadle, a Corrales resident, said he’s taking the bus less often after buying a car. He said he’s noticed smaller crowds on the bus.
“I think a lot of people have found they can work from home, or they carpool, or they save up to buy a car,” Shadle said as he walked through the Downtown bus depot.
The city’s Transit Department has an operating budget of roughly $50 million, about $12 million of which is offset by revenue raised through fares, grants and advertising, officials said. Spending in the department has been fairly flat in recent years.
The decline in ridership, meanwhile, comes as Mayor Richard Berry has proposed a system of express buses that would along Central in their own dedicated lanes. It’s called Albuquerque Rapid Transit.
The Berry administration hopes to learn next month whether the city will get tens of millions of dollars in federal funding to help reshape Central Avenue and launch ART.
Berry and the City Council already have agreed to borrow up to $13 million to help fund the project. Another $80 million could come from the federal government. About $7 million in funding would still be needed for the 10-mile project.
It would cost about $2 million a year to operate.
Rizzieri said the decline in ridership won’t affect the city’s support for ART.
Ridership is a bit “like the stock market,” he said. “It’s up and down, but the trend is upward, and I think that’s going to continue.”