Public transit use is rising

High gas prices, traffic congestion are possible reasons

April 01, 2000|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Increased gasoline prices and ever-worsening traffic congestion appear to be boosting the use of public transit.

Since June, ridership on Maryland Rail Commuter trains is up 5 percent to 6 percent, and Metro subway and light rail ridership is up 3 percent, according to the Mass Transit Administration.

The biggest change has been in the use of Washington commuter buses. The eight bus lines, which travel from points including Hagerstown, Columbia and Kent Island, are carrying 13 percent more riders.

"We think that increasing fuel prices is one of the variables, and we can't forget that there's general traffic congestion in the market we serve," said Frank Fulton of the MTA. "But right now we don't have enough data to be sure. We think there are probably a number of reasons."

Gasoline prices definitely were behind Sallie Thomas' decision to ride a MARC train to Washington yesterday afternoon. Perched on a wooden bench and nibbling a muffin at Penn Station, she said she was delighted not to be behind the wheel. Until a couple of months ago, she said, she frequently traveled by car to visit her children in Washington. Since February, she has been loyal to MARC.

"This costs much less money, and it's more convenient," she said. As a senior citizen, she paid $6 for a round-trip ticket yesterday, saving money on gasoline and the cost of parking in the capital.

John Mandeville, a 19-year-old pre-med student at Towson University, boarded the same train for a weekend visit at his parents' home in Washington. He has taken the train regularly since November. "It's cheaper than driving," he said.

Mary Mazanec commuted from the capital by train yesterday for the third day in a row to attend a Baltimore conference on health care law.

"I just don't like to get on that beltway," she said. "It's the traffic, especially during rush hour. So far, the trains have been on time, they're not very crowded, and it's convenient."

Besides the fuel prices and traffic, MTA's recent addition of double-decker MARC cars also might be luring riders, Fulton said. Tax benefits that went into effect in January for commuters who use public transit might also be helping, he said.

The steady rise in gasoline prices began a year ago, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries announced plans to restrict oil production. Within a month, prices rose from an average of 94 cents a gallon to $1.20. As of two weeks ago, the average price in Maryland was $1.55 a gallon and the national average was $1.54, according to AAA.

Fulton said the agency expects to begin a survey this summer to better understand what's behind the increased ridership. The numbers translate into daily increases of about 1,000 more MARC riders, 2,000 more subway riders and 1,200 more light rail users.

The increases also might be part of a broader trend toward transit. A year ago, each of the transit services except light rail recorded similar increases.

The factors driving more people to ride transit seem to be having no effect on families planning summer vacations by car. Myra Wieman of the Mid-Atlantic AAA office in Towson said the organization's annual Memorial Day survey will better reflect the impact but that for now, drivers seem unfazed.

"Historically, people don't give up the family vacation. They place a high priority on it," she said. "Our prediction at this point is, we don't see gas prices affecting the big travel season."

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