Stung at the Pumps, More Hop on a Bus

By Lena H. Sun and Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Transit systems that ferry commuters into Washington from outlying regions are experiencing significant ridership increases as some gas prices pass $4 a gallon, and Metro officials caution that trains could be overwhelmed if prices go even higher.

Officials are looking for ways to buy or lease more buses, expand parking, encourage employers to stagger work schedules and persuade current riders to avoid the peak of the morning rush period.

In Loudoun County, ridership on county-run commuter buses jumped 23 percent in April from April 2007. Officials scrambled to put additional buses into service, two months ahead of schedule.

In Maryland, ridership on the 15 commuter bus routes into Washington increased 15 percent in April, double the rate of increase from last fall, state transportation officials said. On Wednesday, state officials approved $3.3 million to expand bus service on nine of those routes.

Metro, which at 1.2 million subway and bus trips on an average weekday is the area's largest transit provider, is working on a contingency plan to help itself -- and the region -- prepare for a huge shift to public transit should gas prices hit $5 a gallon. Despite fare and fee increases in January, Metro's average weekday ridership in April -- 771,811 -- was slightly more than 4 percent above that in April 2007.

"There is a point at which we may see a massive move of commuters from driving to transit because of cost," General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. told board members last week.

Metro is urging regional officials to discuss options, even though they might not involve Metrorail. Local transportation departments could run bus-only lanes. Large employers, including the federal government, with a workforce of 300,000 in the Baltimore-Washington area, could institute mandatory flextime. Subway riders could shift their commute so they are not riding at the height of the morning rush, when trains arrive at downtown stations between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m.

"We're not always going to have the solutions," said Nat Bottigheimer, Metro's chief planner. "We're trying to give examples of the kinds of things that can be done so people will be comfortable taking a leap of faith to change a habit."

Transit officials say rising gas prices will most affect solo drivers with the longest commutes, many of whom are considering carpools and vanpools.

On the regional Commuter Connections bulletin board on the Web, ride-sharing postings from Fairfax County and Loudoun increased 87.5 percent in the first quarter of the year from the same period last year.

Sandy Silzer of Sterling, who drives an 11-person vanpool to Northwest Washington, has a waiting list of half a dozen. She is considering upgrading from a 12-person van to one that seats 15. The high gas prices are also having an effect on what she charges: She might soon have to raise her fee of $180 a month if prices keep going up, she said.

"Lately, I've been filling it when I get to half a tank, because I've been trying to edge the prices. They've been going up so frequently," said Silzer, who has a government job in the District.

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