Gas prices push motorists to rail

Link to Washington Times article here.

Is it time to rethink public transit in San Antonio? At least these Washington D.C. area residents have transportation options other than individual vehicle travel.

Cost of gas pushes motorists onto trains
By Christine Simmons
July 8, 2006

Some riders on the MARC Penn Line are fighting for space.

“When you get cars so full of people, you get people who are actually missing their stop because they can’t get to the door,” said Richard Lollis, 57, who rides the Penn Line. “It’s a real nightmare.”

Ridership on the Penn Line jumped 18 percent, from about 352,00 in February to about 416,000 in May, according to Maryland Area Rail Commuter, with three lines serving communities north of Washington.

More people have been using MARC, Metrorail and carpool services since the beginning of the year, officials said, partly because of higher gas prices.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of record days, and what we think is that we’re going to have a record year,” said Murray Bond, director of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s marketing and sales. Six of Metrorail’s top 10 ridership days were recorded in the past three months, including one just last week, according to Metro records.

“My sense is that when it goes toward $3 a gallon — that’s a very sobering reality for people,” Mr. Bond said. He also attributed higher ridership to a good tourist season, road congestion and a natural increase in population and jobs in the Washington area.

The national average for a gallon of gas in February was $2.35. That month, Metro officials recorded about 15.1 million trips on the Metrorail. Four months later, there were about 18.7 million Metrorail trips as the national gas price average hit $2.87.

That’s about a 50-cent jump, according to the Energy Administration Information, which tracks, analyzes and forecasts fuel prices.

Metro expects 50 new rail cars to arrive by the end of the year. Metro’s six-car trains will become eight cars long, said Lisa Farbstein, a Metro spokeswoman.

Long-distance commuters are likely taking advantage of public transportation, too. About 85,000 more commuters rode the MARC train system in May compared with February.

“You see new faces, new people. They’ve parked their car — they just can’t afford to drive,” Mr. Lollis said, who is a member of the MARC Advisory Council, a group representing the train’s passengers. “By the time it gets to Union Station, it’s almost completely full. It’s really putting a burden on the system.”

Rhonda Smith, 49, of Halethorpe, Md., began riding the MARC Camden lines last January.

“I didn’t like the traffic, and gas prices were going up and up, so I started riding the MARC train. It’s more convenient, even though it’s getting more crowded lately,” she said.

Officials with the Maryland Transit Authority, which operates MARC, added 150 extra seats to the Penn Line last year, said Holly Henderson, an MTA spokeswoman. They are also adding 704 new parking spaces at Odenten Station and 150 to the Martin State Airport Station parking lot. A major relief may come if MTA finishes its seven-year negotiations with Amtrak to build an extra storage yard near Union Station. This would accommodate more trains on the MARC system, but Ms. Henderson was not sure whether and when officials would come to an agreement.

Meanwhile, ridership on the Virginia Railway Express, which spreads southwest of Washington, has stayed consistent so far and is slightly down from last year, said Mark Roeber, a VRE spokesman. He credits this to numerous delays, which VRE faced last fall during track maintenance and last month in stormy weather.

“It’s not just a perception. It’s a weariness. The riders become leery and tired of always facing an uncertainty or delay,” Mr. Roeber said. “To a consumer perspective, it becomes mind numbing.”

Commuters may be answering their mass-transit woes with other alternatives.

According to Max Fox, president of the parent company of, about 215 people requested a carpool match for the Washington metro area in June, compared with about 80 in February.

“In general, usership spikes when gas prices spike,” said Mr. Fox, who compared the numbers to those during Hurricane Katrina. “It’s simply when the prices go up, some people are inclined to cross that threshold of tolerance for gas prices, and they’re motivated to look for something.”

“They google for carpool, and they find our link,” he said. He has kept the same advertising for the past five years, so he attributes most of his increased business to fuel costs.

Nicholas Ramfos, director of Commuter Connections, said it’s the combination of aggressive advertising and gas prices that explains higher participation in the program he operates.

Created by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Commuter Connections provides matching services for those traveling to the same destinations in the Washington metro area. About 300 more people applied to the program in May compared with February, Mr. Ramfos said. But recent mail solicitations and radio commercials for the program have targeted the fuel situation.

“[Commuters] could be standing at the pump … and then hear the ad and be thinking, ‘And I just spent $70 or $80, maybe I should be getting into a carpool,’ ” he said. “So there is some correlation.”