Nearly 4.5 million fewer rides were taken on the Long Island Rail Road in 2009 than in 2008 - the largest annual drop in ridership in four decades on the nation's largest commuter railway, LIRR officials said Wednesday.
LIRR president Helena Williams said the decline was driven largely by the weak economy and was not a surprise.
"We knew it was coming," she said. "It was in line with what we expected."
Total LIRR ridership in 2009 was about 83 million - a 4.8 percent decline from the 2008 total of about 87 million, the most since 1949. The last year the LIRR's ridership was lower than in 2009 was the 82 million rides taken in 2006.
Some 84,000 jobs were lost in New York City last year. LIRR finance chief Mark Young said about 40 percent of the LIRR's riders work in the finance and professional sectors - industries hit particularly hard in the economic decline.
The biggest drops in ridership came during peak hours, when so-called commutation ridership fell by 6.4 percent. The dip in ridership during off-peak hours was less dramatic - a decline of 2.6 percent - thanks to several major events in the region, including the U.S. Open golf tournament in Bethpage, the Yankees championship parade in Manhattan, and a deal with New Jersey Transit that allowed LIRR riders to travel to Giants Stadium during football game days for a single fare.
The railroad took a financial hit from the ridership decline, with the LIRR losing $27 million in fare revenue last year when compared with 2008. But railroad officials said they had planned for a significant ridership drop, and a 10 percent fare hike in midyear somewhat softened the blow.
Historically, the LIRR's ridership has "tracked economic growth," Williams said, and a rebound in the economy will result in a "rebound in ridership."
But Anthony Shorris, director of New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, said transit providers may find that some of the recession's consequences are not easily reversed. That includes some companies' relocation out of New York, more people working from home, and more working at commercial centers on Long Island.
Fare hikes and service cuts could drive away some commuters permanently, he said.Chris Jones, vice president of research for the Regional Plan Association, said that the MTA, which is currently without a five-year capital plan, must put money into infrastructure and service even during lean times.
"If you stop investing in service, people will stop using transit," Jones said.Annual ridership