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Rail, bus ridership rises with gas prices

ALBANY, N.Y. — Commuter rail, bus and subway ridership has risen across the country with more people turning to public transportation amid skyrocketing gasoline prices, officials said Tuesday.

Transit authorities around the country are reporting increased ridership with higher revenue, more crowded rail cars and buses and more hits on their Web sites.

From January through August, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in Buffalo saw ridership rise 348,564 from last year, according to spokesman Douglas Hartmayer.

For the week of August 28, when gasoline prices reached $3.50 a gallon in the Buffalo area, ridership was up 12,373. The next week, the authority carried 35,527 more riders than the same week a year earlier.

"People are looking for ways to reduce their transportation costs, and there is no better way to do that than public transportation," Hartmayer said. "People are making what I would call intelligent decisions to take mass transit."

The average U.S. price for regular gasoline on Monday was $2.80 a gallon, up about 89 cents from a year ago, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. The average price peaked at $3.04 a gallon on Sept. 5.

Ridership on the Trinity Railway Express commuter rail between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, rose 15 percent so far in September, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The Washington, D.C.-area Metro system said subway ridership was up both weekdays and weekends. After averaging 650,000 riders over the summer, the agency said it has seen some days this month with more than 700,000 riders.

Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco saw its average weekday ridership rise to 334,428 this month, a 3.5 percent from a year earlier. Several factors are contributing to the upswing but higher gas prices undoubtedly play a role.

"It can cost drivers $50 or $60 to fill up some cars with gas these days," said BART General Manager Thomas E. Margro. "We've got 669 BART cars, and not only do they get a lot better mileage, they're a lot more cost effective for commuters."

Since the beginning of September, ridership on city subways and suburban railways of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia increased by 10,000 people a day — or 1 percent — to slightly over 1 million, spokesman Richard Maloney said.

Historically, SEPTA ridership growth is linked with the health of the area's economy, but short-term spikes can be driven by such things as higher gas prices, Maloney said.

If Americans used public transportation for roughly 10 percent of their daily travel needs, the U.S. would reduce its dependence on imported oil by more than 40 percent, or nearly the amount of oil the U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia each year, according to a 2002 APTA-commissioned study.

"Increased use of public transportation is the single most effective way to reduce America's energy consumption, and it does not require any new taxes, government mandates or regulations," said APTA president William Millar.

Tom Kelly, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City, said the country's largest mass transit system has not seen an "appreciable difference" in ridership this month. The MTA carries about 7 million people a day.

Contributing: Michael W. Kahn, Deborah Yao, Justin Norton