For mass transit, mass investment

With record ridership and fuel prices, subways, trains, and buses are strapped.

High gas prices are prying record numbers of Americans from their cars and onto buses, subways, and commuter trains. That has many pluses: It eases pocketbook expenses, road congestion, and pollution. But it's also straining providers of mass transit – a signal for needed change.

In Washington DC, the Metro subway and bus system is so stretched at peak hours that officials say the government and other large employers may have to mandate staggered work schedules if gas goes over $5 a gallon – once unimaginable.

In San Francisco and the Bay Area, seats near the doors of some BART trains have been removed to create more standing room for a surge in commuters. Meanwhile, about 20 percent of the nation's public bus operators have had to reduce service because of the high cost of diesel fuel, according to the American Public Transport Association (APTA).

Mass-transit ridership that's at its highest in 50 years presents an opportunity to beef up outdated systems in many areas of the country. But it's not going to be easy.

For starters, the same price pinch that's squeezing drivers is being felt by transit operators. They must pay more for fuel and their revenue sources are declining as the economy slows. More people may be exchanging traffic for tokens, but in some cases, fares cover as little as 20 percent of operating expenses. Mass transit depends greatly on local, state, and federal money – from sales taxes, for instance, which are slowing with the economy, and from gas taxes, which have not kept up with inflation.

As a result, public transit operators are increasing fares and delaying projects and improvements – just what the country doesn't need at a time of increased demand. APTA estimates that $45 billion to $60 billion annually is what's needed to invest in America's aging public buses, rail transit, and facilities. Yet current capital spending is only about $13 billion a year.

Public officials may wonder whether the demand is here to stay. During the 1970s oil crises, when folks lined up for gas, public ridership increased – but then dropped again. Only 5 percent of Americans now commute to work using public transport.

America's passion for automobiles – for the independence and comfort they provide – runs deep, and carmakers want to keep it that way with more fuel-efficient models. At the same time, only 20 percent of Americans live near public transport.

It's one thing to take temporary measures such as extending hours, adding more train cars, and bringing back bus-only lanes. It's quite another to expand train station parking areas and construct subway or light rail lines.

But those who hesitate should consider this: The days of $1.50-a-gallon gas are long gone, while traffic congestion is growing. Over the next 50 years, the US population is expected to increase by 150 million people. An ongoing trend back to urban areas shows at least some people are tired of the expense and time of exurban living.

Look to Seattle for an example of needed foresight. It's nearly finished with its 1996 expansion to its commuter rail network, and just in time. Last year, ridership shot up 28 percent – the highest rate in the country.

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