With $4 gasoline, commuters seek savings through public transit
Record fuel prices have become a double-edged sword for public transit systems, here and nationally, leading to substantial ridership increases but also higher operating costs that erase revenue gains.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had a 6.1 percent increase in passengers this year through April, compared to 2007. Just between January and April, there were nearly 100,000 more riders.
The two regional transit authorities in MetroWest and the Milford area say they, too, have higher ridership numbers. Gasoline prices are also playing a prominent role in the transit agencies' marketing.
Nationally, there was a 3.3 percent increase in passengers during the first quarter this year, compared to what was a historic 2007, reports the American Public Transportation Association. In the same time periods, miles traveled by car each month have fallen by a similar amount nationwide, says the Federal Highway Administration.
The figures suggest a broad lifestyle change, transit officials said.
"I've got to believe we've never seen anything like this," said MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas. "I'm going on the assumption prices are high and going to stay that way, and that gives us a chance to make our case on the wallet and pocketbook side and convenience."
Capacity is available to handle the increases in passengers, said transit officials, though the increase in gasoline prices is still too new to use them as the basis for long-term decisions. For example, John Stasik, the nascent MetroWest Regional Transit Authority's advisory board chairman, said decisions on building routes and the number of buses comes down to demographics.
Meanwhile, Grabauskas said the 75 train coaches the MBTA was planning to retire when an equal number of bi-level ones are introduced in a couple years might be renovated and kept in service if ridership stays so high.
Yet simultaneously, the recent large increase in fuel prices is aggravating transit agencies' budgets. The MBTA already has a $21 million deficit in next fiscal year's budget if fuel prices remain at their current level, Grabauskas said. And MetroWest RTA administrator Ed Carr said building his $4 million budget has become much more difficult with prices in such flux.
In a national survey by the American Public Transportation Association this spring, transit agencies said diesel fuel is 43 percent more expensive this year than in 2007. Forty-eight percent of bus operators said they have raised fares because of higher fuel prices.
"It's an exciting time for public transportation, but also a challenging time because as much as gasoline strains a family budget, high diesel prices strain a bus system, too," said association spokeswoman Virginia Miller.
But the same increases in gasoline prices make the idea of commuting by public transportation more palatable. The average cost of regular gasoline in Greater Boston Thursday was $4.06 per gallon, more than a dollar more expensive than this time last year, reported AAA Southern New England.
At that price, a daily 45-mile roundtrip from Framingham to downtown Boston, in a car averaging 25 miles per gallon, 22 workdays per month, costs about $160 monthly. The commuter rail pass from Framingham to South Station costs $210 per month, which includes all subway and bus rides. (This calculation does not include parking costs in Boston, car insurance and the much more qualitative convenience that, depending on your perspective, driving in your car or sitting on a train brings.)
A ride on one of the MetroWest RTA's buses costs $1.50, which Stasik thinks is enough of a price difference to overcome long-standing apathy toward suburban public transportation.
"If it takes a gallon of gas to go to work, it costs $5, and once they see it's going to cost $1.50 to take the bus, maybe they'll get over it," he said.
The Greater Attleboro Taunton Regional Transit Authority has had at least a 3 percent increase in passengers so far this year, said George Colajezzi, who directs the authority's marketing. It is participating Thursday in a nationwide "Dump the Pump" campaign to entice new riders with a free day of bus service.
"It was a cute thing for public transit to do, but last year it got some notice and this year it stands for itself," he said. "This year, I couldn't wait to get out the news release."
But overall, the situation creates a challenging balance for transit agencies, Grabauskas said. Passengers are riding because of gasoline prices, but their extra revenue is not enough to keep pace with the increased cost of operating a public transit system because of fuel prices.
"My hope is we see a moderation in fuel prices," he said, "but still hold on to the riders because they see the cost, convenience, and say, 'Why would I go back to my car?"'
Aaron Wasserman may be reached at 508-634-7546 or email@example.com. Previous stories in this series can be found at www.metrowestdailynews.com.