As gasoline prices climb toward $4 a gallon, more commuters in Maryland are leaving their cars and trucks at home and hopping a bus or train to work.
The Maryland Transit Administration will seek approval next week to expand service on its long-distance bus lines to accommodate a surge of new riders. The so-called "commuter" buses ferry workers to Washington from places as far-flung as Hagerstown, Kent Island and Ellicott City.
The action comes at a time when ridership on almost all forms of transit - including subway, city bus and commuter rail - is up in Maryland and across the nation. Maryland's long-distance commuter bus lines handle just a fraction of all the people taking transit every day, but officials say those lines are among the most sensitive to rising fuel prices because of the distances riders must travel to and from work.
"Every time we see the large spikes in fuel prices, we see an almost immediate spike in the ridership numbers," MTA spokeswoman Jawauna M. Greene said yesterday. In recent months, she added, the growth has been "amazing," with as many as 1,000 new bus passes sold in a month.
As a result, the MTA has asked the state Board of Public Works to approve increases totaling nearly $3.5 million in what the state pays three bus companies to add extra runs on seven routes providing weekday service linking the capital with Howard County, Western and Southern Maryland, and the Eastern Shore. The board is expected to vote on the contracts next week.
Regular unleaded costs an average of $3.72 per gallon across the nation, according to the latest weekly price surveys released yesterday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That was also the average pump price found in the latest survey of Maryland stations by AAA Mid-Atlantic Inc. Just a month ago, the average price in Maryland was $3.33.
"Unfortunately, with the price of crude oil being as high as it is, the reality is gas prices probably will not be coming down anytime soon," said Ragina Averella, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. Indeed, prices typically spike around Memorial Day, with the advent of summer and vacation trips.
Unless crude oil prices drop substantially, gasoline could well reach $4 a gallon by month's end, predicted Doug MacIntyre, oil market analyst with the Energy Information Administration.
Even before the latest run-up in gas prices, transit ridership was at levels not seen in 50 years. Nationally, Americans took 10.3 billion transit trips last year, up 2 percent over the previous year, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
Transit use has grown in Maryland as well, with the MARC commuter trains experiencing a 3.5 percent increase in ridership in 2007. Ridership on MTA buses serving Baltimore and its suburbs rose by about 15 percent from July of last year through March. The only form of transit struggling was light rail, which has lost riders since last summer.
Transit advocates say that while they sympathize with commuters forced to pay more at the pump, there might be a silver lining to soaring gas prices: Demand is growing for more and better public transportation.
"People are starting to pay a little bit more attention to mass transit," said Otis Rolley III, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.
Passengers getting off the commuter bus from Washington at the Snowden River Parkway park-and-ride yesterday afternoon said they've had more company lately on those trips.
Lashawn Travett, who has been commuting to Washington by bus for two years now, said that for the past month or so, she has noticed a "drastic increase" in the number of riders.
"The morning is really crowded," said Travett, 34, of Columbia. She added that the afternoon bus, which she boards just after 3 p.m., has also become crowded by the last pickup.
She said, however, that she still prefers the bus because it drops her off right in front of her place of work and saves her money. "It saves gas and wear and tear on my car," she said.
Fawad Siddiqui, also of Columbia, said he got a new job in Washington about five months ago and has been taking the commuter bus since then.
"The drive is unthinkable," said Siddiqui, 35. "With the current oil prices, it's unimaginable. I have not taken my car, not even once."
Eastern Shore resident Lori Hinton says she would love to ride transit, but the commuter bus she could catch on Kent Island would drop her too far from her workplace in Capitol Heights outside Washington.
She is desperately looking for an alternative to driving her H3 Hummer every day, which she said uses $600 a month in fuel. "Driving a Hummer, it takes about $78 to fill up one time," she said. "And I fill up 2 1/2 times a week."
Recently, she said, she began swapping vehicles with her boyfriend to save a little by driving his Ford Taurus to work. Meanwhile, the Hummer is for sale on eBay, she added.
Others, particularly those worried about the environmental as well as economic costs of driving, are making changes, too.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the anti-sprawl group 1000 Friends of Maryland, said she and her staff got a red bicycle they use for short business trips around Baltimore, rather than drive. She pedaled across town in dress and heels recently to attend a meeting, she said.
Schmidt-Perkins said the change was not that alien to her, because she once lived in Europe where she rode a bike everywhere, as did many others.
Of course, she added, "I was 18 then, not 50."
"I think what's finally happened is people are beginning to look at their everyday schedule, [and asking themselves] 'What ... car trip can I drop?'" said Richard Chambers, executive director of One Less Car, a group advocating alternatives to driving.
"People really are changing," he added. "It's not just griping and filling up the tank again."
Chambers said he's cut out driving for one major errand a week. He and his wife now walk about a mile from their home in Northeast Baltimore to shop at the local Safeway, he said.
"It's actually very soothing," he said, "and you actually end up spending time with your wife, talking, doing things you wouldn't in a car."
Riding mass transit
The use of most forms of mass transit is on the rise in Maryland. These figures show the number of trips taken during the month.
Type of mass transit July 2007 March 2008
Commuter bus 13,844 15,188
Bus 191,664 222,522
Metro 44,009 47,055
MARC 30,318 31,943
Light rail 29,680 26,178
[Source: Maryland Transit Administration]