Gas prices push travelers to mass transit

Courtney Potts

Record gas prices this summer may have been murder on the wallet, but they gave a big boost to some local and national mass transportation companies, experts said.

Ed Welsh, regional general manager of AAA New York, said this year could be the first in two decades to see a dip in car travel over the normally chaotic Thanksgiving holiday, despite gas prices potentially returning to around $3.20 per gallon.

Meanwhile, local and national mass transit companies are reporting some record numbers.

Amtrak, for example, served more than 2.75 million passengers nationwide in July. That represented a 14 percent increase over the same period in 2007 and set a record for the most passengers ever in a single month, said New York City-based spokesman Clifford Cole.

“We’re saying that half of our increase from our fiscal year ’07 to fiscal year ’08, which was 11 percent, half of that we can attribute to increased gas prices,” he said.

The other half, Cole said, is likely due to factors such as increased concern for the environment and frustration with congested roadways.

Utica has been affected in a similar way by gas prices and other concerns.

  • As of August, ridership on trains between Albany and Niagara Falls and Toronto had increased by 23 percent over last year.
  • At the Utica station specifically, ridership through the end of September was already up 5.3 percent over total ridership for 2007, Cole said.
  • Centro of Oneida General Manager Ronald Bucciero said his company also has seen a 13 percent increase throughout the year.
  • September saw a total ridership topping 101,000 – an 18.6 percent increase over September 2007, Bucciero said.

The focus on other forms of transportation has become so great that one candidate is even tying it into his campaign.

U.S. Rep. Michael Arcuri, D-Utica, plans to ride Centro buses all day today in the Utica area to highlight the savings in both energy and costs.

Bucciero attributed the growing popularity of mass transit to the search for an alternative to car travel.

One Utican hopping on board with the growing trend was 32-year-old Mandy Shephard of Utica.

Shephard said she gave up her car almost a year ago, and now uses the bus system to get to her nursing classes at BOCES.

She’s not sure exactly, but she said she believes the $1.25 fare is a big savings over the costs of owning a vehicle.

“It’s more convenient and it saves money on gas,” she said. “And you don’t have to worry about your bus not starting in the morning to go to work.”

Even with gas prices returning to more palatable levels recently, Bucciero said he believes mass transit will continue to see increased demand compared to past years.

“We’re seeing the price of gas going down … and we’re still seeing these ridership increases,” he said. “They tried our services and they’re still using our services because they found them convenient.”

And Shephard lent support to his argument, saying she plans to stick with the bus for the foreseeable future.

But Welsh, of AAA, said it’s too soon to judge whether the mass transit boom will make a lasting change in people’s habits.

“Gas prices have only come down in the last couple of weeks,” Welsh said. “I’d want to see how it pans out for the next month or two before I call it a trend.

“I think if we got under $3 per gallon for any long period of time, people would start to reevaluate that again,” he said.