Gasoline prices at near-record highs are fueling a big increase in the number of riders on buses and trains, prompting cities around the country to improve their public transport systems, transportation agencies said on Tuesday.
The Energy Information Administration, the U.S. government's top energy forecasting agency, on Monday said the average U.S. retail gasoline price increased 71 cents over a year ago to $3 a gallon, the second highest pump price ever.
The highest price, $3.057 a gallon, came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last summer. If that experience is any indication, it showed Americans can indeed be forced from their cars at the right price.
"Around the time Katrina hit and the gas prices started approaching $3, we began to hear from our members that they were seeing large spikes in ridership," William Millar, president of the American Public Transport Association, said.
"There were literally dozens of cities that were seeing double-digit increases."
It's estimated that U.S. riders of public transport save 855 million gallons of gasoline a year, or $2.56 billion at current average prices for a gallon of regular gasoline, according to the APTA.
The APTA and transportation agencies around the country are optimistic they'll continue enjoying increased ridership as gasoline prices go up.
In the first quarter, as gas prices started to surge again, public transportation ridership rose 4.25 percent nationwide, representing almost 2.5 billion trips, the APTA said.
The increase "seems to relate very largely to gas prices," Millar said. "Hearing anecdotally from our members about their second quarter numbers, it would appear that trend is continuing."
Local Taxes To Fund Improvements
Websites are helping to make a difference, with several transit systems around the nation, including Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Dallas, enjoying increased hits on their sites. "You might look at that as an indication of future business," said Millar.
Traffic on the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) website has "gone up and actually spiked with the rises in gas prices," said DART spokesman Morgan Lyons.
The boost in ridership has many of the country's transit systems looking to make improvements, with ballot initiatives asking voters for permission to raise local taxes for public transit or to continue taxes that were scheduled to end.
For instance, Salt Lake City, where ridership is up 43 percent versus a year ago, is asking the public this fall for $900 million to add 30 miles of tracks to the city's light rail system in a project that is expected to cost $1.2 billion.
Polling indicates 93 percent of voters in the area want a chance to vote on the initiative, with 65 percent of them saying they would approve the plan, according to Utah Transit Authority spokesman Justin Jones.
"You have to have the demand in order to justify doing that," said Joan Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Fort Worth Transportation Authority. "I think now the interest for the first time in years is really high."
© 2006 Reuters Limited