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In US, gas prices mean more riders, fewer buses

People are using public transportation more than ever, but higher fuel costs - and lower sales tax revenues - are forcing municipalities to trim bus routes.

By Ivan Moreno

Published in the Blue Ridge Times on August 4, 2008.

DENVER - High gas prices almost killed the lifeline to the city for a group of mountain commuters.

Park County bus riders recently had to plead with city officials to keep their route running, arguing that a daily 80-mile car trip would hurt riders financially.

"For many of our mountain commuters, it is the only form of transportation that these people have," said Pam Beckhorn, who leads a group dedicated to preserving the route along Highway 285.

Like their counterparts across the country, cash-strapped Colorado officials face a paradox: People are using public transportation more than ever, but higher fuel costs - and lower sales tax revenues - are forcing municipalities to trim routes.

According to a May survey by the American Public Transportation Association, about one in five of the nation's transit agencies have cut service over the past year. They include Cleveland; Corpus Christi, Texas; and San Diego, which has seen one of the largest increases in bus ridership in the country.

The cutbacks come at a time of increasing interest in public buses and trains: The transportation association says people took 2.6 billion trips on public transportation nationwide in the first three months of 2008 - almost 88 million more than last year.

The highest ridership increases came in light rail and commuter rail. In light rail, Baltimore, Minneapolis, St. Louis and San Francisco all saw double-digit percentage increases over the first quarter of 2007.

Double-digit percentage increases for commuter rail were posted in Oakland, Calif.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Philadelphia, among others. Seattle's increase was almost 28 percent, APTA said.

Bonnie Arnold, with the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, said the commuter rail system there saw a 46.7 percent more passengers in June than in June 2007.

"It's just been mind-boggling," she said.

Transit authorities are feeling the pinch of higher gas prices on both the expenditure and revenue sides of their budgets. They're paying more to fuel their buses and trains. At the same time, they're taking in fewer sales tax dollars - an income source for many transit agencies - because people are spending more at the pump and less on other items.

The Denver-area's transit system, which serves eight counties with a population of about 2.6 million, is on pace to carry 100 million passengers this year, a record in its 35-year history, said spokesman Scott Reed.

But the system will be about $6 million over budget this year on fuel. It budgeted for $2.62 per gallon but is paying $3.20, Reed said.

Fuel costs also make building materials needed to expand infrastructure more expensive, said Clarence W. Marsella, general manager and CEO of the Regional Transportation District.

"Everything that we do is being undermined by the fuel crisis," Marsella said. "It's really diabolical. The tentacles are everywhere."

Anticipating rising fuel costs, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority cut 5 percent of its bus lines in December. The district's fuel spending will surpass $20 million this year, compared to $12 million in 2007, said a spokesman.

One option being considered is adding a fuel surcharge to fares. If approved, any changes would be implemented in early October, the spokesman said.

In Corpus Christi, the Regional Transportation Authority is running fewer buses, said spokeswoman Kristi Pena. In New York City, there is talk of subway and bus fare hikes.

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System has reduced service, raised fares and laid off workers, said spokesman Rob Schupp. High fuel costs account for about $2 million of its $6.5 million deficit.

Denver's system is bracing for $5-a-gallon diesel prices in 2009. So the district has to cut or reduce service on its underperforming routes. That led to lobbying for the endangered route along Highway 285 during a recent meeting of the Regional Transportation District.

"You would put a lot of people out of work if you took their bus away from them," said engineer Martin Wirth, one of about 40 people at the meeting fighting to save the route.

Group members wore and gave board members T-shirts that read, "Go Green. Ride The Drive." They pleaded with the board to give them a chance to increase ridership.

In the end, the board voted to keep Route U, despite its $375,000 yearly cost. Supporters posed on a stairway for a celebratory picture.

"We are the little mouse that roared," Beckhorn said.