Passengers wait for a westbound LIRR train at the Hicksville...

Passengers wait for a westbound LIRR train at the Hicksville station. (July 19, 2010) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

In what may be another indication of the economy's recovery, the Long Island Rail Road reported a small growth in ridership compared with the same month in 2009 - the first such increase in a year and a half.

The LIRR carried 1.4 percent more people in July than during the same month last year, according to figures released Monday at a meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's railroad committee. The last time the LIRR reported an increase over the same month in a prior year was in December 2008, when ridership was up compared with December 2007.

LIRR chief financial officer Mark Young said ridership in August had been on pace to beat the previous August until the agency lost some 116,000 rides when an electrical fire at Jamaica Station caused a week of delays and cancellations late in the month.

Although August's overall ridership dropped 0.7 percent, so-called commutation ridership -- those commuting to work daily during the week - was up 0.4 percent. That was the first commutation increase this year over last year.

"Two months of data is not enough to establish a trend, but we are cautiously optimistic about the improvement in LIRR ridership during July and August," said LIRR president Helena Williams, who said she was particularly encouraged by the growth among regular commuters. "We are hopeful that, as the economy improves, we will continue to see stronger ticket sales and improved ridership."

In 2008, the LIRR posted a 60-year record ridership of 87 million. But ridership plummeted dramatically in 2009, as the high unemployment rate meant fewer people had jobs to commute to, experts said. Nearly 4.5 million fewer people rode the LIRR in 2009 than in 2008.

Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association, said on trains and buses throughout the country there is evidence that people are returning to work. In the second quarter of 2010, some 2.5 billion public transportation rides were taken - a 1 percent increase from the same period in 2009. It was the first such increase since late 2008, according to the association.

"More and more people are finding jobs, so there are more and more people on public transportation," said Miller, who added that public transportation statistics are usually a "lagging indicator" for the economy's condition. "As new jobs are added on and new people are hired, then we see new ridership. It doesn't happen overnight."

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