New Haven Line ridership signals economic sparks
STAMFORD -- David Perry, a White Plains, N.Y., rail commuter who travels to the Stamford station each day, said he has noticed the trains he takes from Harlem-125th St. between 7 and 8 a.m. seem more full.
"You can get a seat, but it does seem busier," said Perry, a finance worker for a downtown Stamford firm.
Overall ridership on Metro-North Railroad's New Haven Line has grown 5.9 percent in the first four months of the year, a rise that Metro-North Vice President of Planning Robert MacLagger said is driven heavily by more travel between stations east of Grand Central Terminal and outside of peak hours.
Intermediate trips outside the 6-to-10 a.m. morning peak and 4-to-8 p.m. evening rush hours grew 10.1 percent, from 1.34 million to 1.5 million, MacLagger said, reflecting higher employment and more economic confidence.
"It clearly shows a turn-around of the economy in terms of work travel and the non-work travel with people feeling somewhat better about a rebound in the economy," MacLagger said. "We're encouraged that the ridership that is neither to or from Manhattan has been very strong this year."
Ridership for CTTransit buses in Stamford rose 6.1 percent in the 12-month period ending May 31, totaling 3.42 million versus 3.22 million in the same period in 2010-11, CTTransit General Manager David Lee said.
Nationwide, public transportation rose 5 percent in the first three months of 2012, according to the American Public Transportation Association, a transportation research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
Lee said he believed the increased use was probably split between new hiring and a shift in commuting behavior from driving to riding mass transit due to higher gasoline prices.
"Just as many transit-dependent workers were early casualties when the economy soured and entry-level retail and service jobs were lost," Lee said. "We would like to think the improving economy means some of those jobs are coming back, along with passengers."
While acknowledging ridership was an encouraging sign, state officials and others said recent labor trends, reflected in the state's labor statistics, made a link between more jobs and discretionary income and ridership less clear.
In the past five months, total employment for the Bridgeport-Stamford area has fallen slightly, from 399,400 jobs in December 2011, to 399,000 jobs at the end of April, according to the state labor department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Lisa Mercurio, director of the Fairfield County Information Exchange for the Fairfield County Business Council, said the group viewed the higher ridership as due to more motorists becoming rail commuters as service and equipment improves.
"The addition of new cars, an increase in parking, and scheduling changes are helping people find the train is a real option to driving," Mercurio said.
Andrew Condon, the state Department of Labor's director of the office of research, said Connecticut has gained back 34,100 of the 117,000 jobs lost in the period of recession beginning in March 2008 and ending in February 2010.
Condon said Metro-North's ridership growth was consistent with an analysis done in 2011 that showed changed travel patterns as workers in Fairfield, New Haven and Westchester counties lost jobs and found new ones.
According to the analysis, Connecticut workers who live in Fairfield or New Haven counties and traveled to Westchester County or New York City for jobs grew from 49,280 in 2009 to 50,079 in 2010.
An analysis by Condon found the number of New York City residents working in Westchester or Fairfield counties grew from 30,102 in 2009 to 31,021 in 2010.
"One, I think gas prices are pushing people to use Metro-North and two, challenging economic times have forced people to reach out further and further to find places to work," Condon said. "That trend has probably continued."
David Treadwell, a spokesman for the state's Department of Economic and Community Development, said there are encouraging economic indicators in the Bridgeport-Stamford and Westchester areas, noting federal labor statistics that show 70,000 new jobs in New York City since January.
Despite expected brisker hiring in Fairfield and Westchester counties in the next two years, other factors, including higher gasoline prices, appear to be obvious contributors to greater transit use, Treadwell said.
"It would take a little more analysis to draw the conclusion that there is more discretionary spending or hiring," Treadwell said. "It could be part of it along with that it is cheaper than driving."
Connecticut Rail Commuter Council Chairman Jim Cameron said he believes much of the ridership growth is attributable to the addition of more than 100 of the state's new M-8 railcars as well as an on-time performance record on the New Haven Line, which is at 98 percent for the year.
"The railroad deserves credit for getting the M-8 cars in service, filling out the consists, and operating on time," Cameron said.
"We've turned the corner from broken-down cars reeling from crisis to crisis to a modern, efficient railroad attracting a lot of new riders."
A recent curtailing of increased commercial demand has further squeezed in-state trucking firms, whose fortunes mirror trends in the retail and real estate industries, said Michael Riley, president of the Connecticut Motor Transport Association, which represents 800 trucking firms in the state.
Nationwide in April, the tonnage hauled by trucking firms fell 1.1. percent compared to March, but is 3.5 percent higher than April 2011, according to the American Trucking Association's For Hire Truck Tonnage Index.
"There have been some good signs that people were beginning to feel somewhat optimistic about spending but it's very fragile," Riley said. "People are waiting for the real estate market to bounce back so the moving companies are on their knees."