High gas prices cause transit surge
With gas prices creeping past $4 a gallon, city and state transit agencies are reporting surges in ridership. However, higher fuel prices also are straining transit agency budgets, and the higher ridership has put a squeeze on seating capacity. In response, transit agencies are adjusting their daily operations.
Average weekday trips from January through March for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) are up 5.9 percent, or 227,000 more trips than the 3.85 million recorded in the same period last year, says Klark Jessen, director of communications for the Massachusetts Highway Department Executive Office of Transportation. MBTA, which operates in the Boston metro area, also is seeing more people using transit for recreational events, such as baseball games at Fenway Park. “It’s not just the nine-to-fivers [that are opting for mass transit],” says Joseph Pesaturo, MBTA’s director of communications.
Early this year, MBTA purchased 189 more subway cars to accommodate increased ridership. The city also works with area mass transit advocacy groups to encourage large employers and colleges to provide discount commuter rates and stagger work shifts to reduce the number of riders that use the system at any one time during rush hours.
In June, MBTA launched a campaign throughout the Boston metro area that promotes the “T” as the smart commuting option. Additionally, the “T” participated in the American Public Transportation Association’s Third Annual National Dump the Pump Day on June 19 to encourage public transit use as a way to conserve gas and foster a healthier environment.
Transit ridership in Connecticut has increased since the gas price hikes that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, says Michael Sanders, transit administrator for the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT). Following Katrina, the agency saw an immediate 10 percent increase in express bus ridership from Hartford’s suburbs, which Sanders attributes to long-distance drivers being more sensitive to gas prices as they consume more. Annual bus ridership is at approximately 37 million in Connecticut, with an increase of 1.8 percent in new trips in the past year.
Fuel costs can consume 10 percent or more of a transit system’s operating budget, but CTDOT has been able to control costs and avoid raising fares through its fuel futures contract, which locked in prices at $2.51 a gallon through October 2008. “[The contract] saved us $4 million this year,” Sanders says.
The Virginia Railway Express (VRE), which serves the Washington metro area, has seen a cumulative increase in ridership from July 2007 through May 2008 of 4.37 percent with an 11.55 percent increase in April alone. “VRE is receiving five new gallery cars each month, but it still will be strained to handle many more riders,” says Rick Taube, executive director for the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.
Fuel costs are adding to the strain. While VRE’s fiscal year 2009 budget for fuel stands at $3.74 million, officials estimate the actual cost will be $6.3 million.
However, VRE officials are seeing the effects their services are having on reducing pollution and traffic congestion. Two of VRE’s train lines run parallel to major highways into Fredricksburg and Manassas. “In general terms, VRE is currently taking a lane of traffic off of each of these interstate highways during the rush hour, so you can see the positive impact we make,” says Mark Roeber, VRE’s manager of Public Affairs and Government Relations.
— Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.