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Getting on Board

The Baltimore Sun

It was June 2001, and the price of a gallon of regular gasoline had soared to $1.68 a gallon. It was so ridiculous that many folks said to heck with it, we'll take mass transit. And they did. There were 5 million more transit trips taken in the United States that month than the previous June.

But by June 2002, with travel curtailed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, gas was down to a less burdensome $1.39. Public transit lost 23 million rides from the same month a year before as commuters returned to their cars. Not until 2004 would annual transit ridership return to 2001 levels.

Now comes another June, with many Baltimore-area outlets selling gas for more than $4. Transit ridership is up nationally and locally, according to the American Public Transit Administration and Maryland Transit Administration.

In some cases, the gains are astonishing. From January to March this year, Seattle's commuter rail ridership rose 28 percent and Tri-Rail in South Florida gained 12.9 percent, said an APTA spokeswoman, Virginia Miller. Such gains may have accelerated as gas prices continued to rise in the second quarter.

Now many transportation officials and commentators wonder whether these changes are solid or ephemeral. Will gasoline prices recede and will riders decide they've had enough of crowded MARC cars and pokey Light Rail? Or will $4 gas do what $1 gas and $2 gas and $3 gas could not: force a lasting shift of riders who have a choice to public transit?

Richard Chambers, executive director of the Maryland-based advocacy group One Less Car, thinks the $4 milestone is significant.

"There is going to be a tipping point because the economy just isn't doing very well," he said. "If we had a world-class transit system in the Baltimore area, I don't doubt for a minute we would be seeing very large increases in ridership."

Some transit executives are preparing for just such a change. Last month, Washington Metro's general manager, John Catoe, told his staff to make contingency plans for an influx of riders in case gas hits $5 a gallon.

But Christopher Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, is a skeptic. Even if gas hits $5, he said, motorists will choose convenience and stick with their cars.

"The reality is people are going to adjust. They make the trade-off," he said. "I don't think you're going to have people rushing to get onto public transit."

Baltimore's transit system, while robust in many ways, falls considerably short of the world-class standard of Washington's Metro. Even ardent transit advocates are concerned that the system isn't prepared for an influx of new riders and that people trying out transit will have an experience that sends them running back to their cars.

A case in point: The MTA's Light Rail system led its peers around the country during the first quarter of 2008 with a 16.8 increase in ridership, according to the APTA. But just as the system was gaining popularity, a cracked wheel exposed systemic weaknesses that led to about two weeks of blown schedules and overcrowded trains. How many new riders gave up on the system?

"It's something we'll have to work very hard to recover from," said Henry Kay, the MTA's deputy administrator for planning.

Still, one high-profile failure should not obscure some important gains. For instance, first-quarter ridership on Baltimore's Metro subway - the one many longtime residents have never ridden - was among the national leaders with a 4.9 percent gain.

And nothing significant went wrong. Trains remained more or less on schedule, and there was plenty of capacity to absorb the increased ridership.

This month, the MTA is adding 13 trips to its growing commuter bus program, which serves such communities as Hagerstown and Frederick and also Southern Maryland.

The new trips, provided by private operators under contract, are geared toward Washington, but the MTA is considering expansion of commuter runs to Baltimore. The MTA is studying the restoration of express service to and from Annapolis, runs eliminated in 2005. Kay said the agency will also look into adding a Frederick-to-Baltimore line, as well as service from Harford County to Southeast Baltimore and Towson.

Meanwhile, the agency will soon add rides to its MARC commuter train service, part of a long-term expansion plan. More than any other MTA service, MARC has been a victim of its own success, because any additions to its capacity are quickly offset by growing demand on trains to Washington.

One commuter who recently chose MARC to save on gas is Maureen Conners of Catonsville, who works for Congressional Quarterly near Dupont Circle. She used to drive about 45 minutes to Silver Spring to catch the Washington Metro, but the cost of fuel and a change in work hours prompted her to switch to MARC, which she could reach with a much shorter drive to Halethorpe.

But even after a recent addition of 428 spaces, parking at Halethorpe station is at capacity by the time Conners' train rumbles in, and commuters' parked cars snake down Southwestern Boulevard. One recent morning, the former Sun editor couldn't find a clearly legal space within a half-mile. She took her chances and found a $27 ticket on her windshield that evening.

"I'm upset," she said. "It's not my fault that there aren't enough parking spaces there."

Conners' situation illustrates the unforgiving nature of the transit business. Demand can jump with astonishing rapidity, but increasing capacity can be a long, drawn-out process involving competing transportation priorities, long approval processes and public-hearing requirements.

For instance, at Halethorpe, MTA officials are well aware of the parking woes, but with the available land exhausted, the only way to add enough spaces may be to build a garage - a process that could take years. The MTA faces similar constraints at other MARC stations.

More dramatic changes, such as planning and construction of the proposed east-west Red Line through Baltimore, are even more daunting projects that can take 15 to 20 years.

Transit advocates say Maryland must seize this opportunity to attract new riders and build support for non-highway transportation spending.

"Now is the time to experiment with new mass transit ideas," said One Less Car's Chambers. "The state could miss out on a really incredible opportunity right now."

Growing ridership could translate into greater political support for transit spending as middle-class "choice" riders demand more reliable, comfortable service. Already, their demands are being reflected in the MTA's long-term plan to triple the MARC system's capacity.

The MTA's Kay agrees that the current gas price increase is "a huge opportunity from a marketing standpoint." He added, "It's appropriate in the face of high gas prices that we let people know they have options."

But Chambers warns that the No. 1 obstacle to the growth of mass transit is perception.

"People generally feel that mass transit is second-class transportation," he said. "You see real opposition in the counties to better mass transit, and I think that has to change."

In a state with widely dispersed development, Kay said, public transit will never be a "door-to-door experience." Choosing to live near transit is a "lifestyle choice," he noted, and people don't make those overnight. "It evolves over generations."

Still, the APTA's Miller noted a trend that suggests that change is coming. All over the country, she said, transit agencies are seeing an increase in hits on their Web sites - as if people who had never done so were figuring out how to catch a bus or train.

"You can't change your travel behavior until you know how to do it," she said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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