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Gas price surge leads to boost in MTS ridership

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Roland Lizarondo
A trolley pulls into the 12th and Imperial station at the MTS headquarters on March 10, 2022.

On Thursday, the average price of a gallon of gas hit $5.71 in San Diego County.

Metropolitan Transit System officials said the high gas prices appeared to have led to a boost in ridership, but the region’s largest transit system was already seeing more passengers, even before gas went up.

The two years since March 2020 have taken MTS on a wild ride. Pre-pandemic, nearly 290,000 people a day rode buses and trolleys.

“After the pandemic hit, at its lowest point, that was down about 73%," said Mark Olson, marketing and communications director for MTS.

Gas price surge leads to boost in MTS ridership

Fortunately for MTS, federal stimulus funds filled the breach, keeping the agency afloat.

But Olson said MTS was now able to stretch those dollars further because its main source of funds, ridership, is bouncing back quicker than expected.

“For last year’s budget, we were anticipating about 11% ridership growth. We just updated those numbers to 45% increased ridership growth over the previous year. ... On March 3, that was the first time that we actually hit over 200,000 passenger trips, so we’re getting back to that level of about 70% of pre-pandemic ridership," Olson said.

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Roland Lizarondo
A trolley travels along the recently completed Blue Line to University City on March 10, 2022.

Preliminary data suggest that soaring gas prices might have helped boost ridership very recently, but Olson also said MTS was working on other ways to get more people to take buses and trolleys.

RELATED: MTS Board approves new affordable housing development in San Ysidro

One long-term goal for increasing ridership that has been talked about lately is simply making transit free for everyone. That might or might not ever happen, but, inside of two months, it is going to become free for one segment of the population.

“We’re moving forward with something called the Youth Opportunity Pass, which will provide free transit to those 18 and under, and that’s tentatively set for May 1,” Olson said

Olson also said the extension of the Blue Line to University City was proving very popular, helping MTS's bottom line.

The agency did struggle during the height of the omicron surge, not from decreased ridership, but because so many bus and trolley operators were sick. Olson said that wasn't a problem anymore. Now MTS’s goal is making sure that it can adequately fund itself when those federal dollars run out.

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