Is mass transit ready for a commute surge?

June 26, 2008 7:12:08 PM PDT
If you think four dollar gas is expensive, think again. A major investment bank is predicting the price of gas will reach seven dollars in the next two years, forcing us to radically change our commuting habits. But are our transit systems ready for a massive switch to public transportation? With the governor is pushing to take $1.4 billion from public transit projects to bail out the state budget, the outlook is grim.

Mass transit wants riders, but seven dollars a gallon for gas is going to create a new kind of commute congestion.

"Do I want to spend an insane amount of money driving my car? Or do I want to put up with insanely crowded and miserable conditions on the bus? That's not a choice that people should have to make," says Dave Snyder with the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

But that is precisely the prediction facing Bay Area commuters. The investment bank CIBC World Markets is projecting $200 a barrel oil and seven dollars a gallon for gas within two years. That will make gas more expensive than what the average family spends on groceries. That kind of price pressure would cause Americans to drive less, from the current average of 12,000 miles a year to about 10,400 miles four years from now.

Roads may become less congested as the number of vehicles drops by 10 million by 2012, and that means more people using public transit.

BART ridership is already up over six percent from a year ago as gas prices soared. Unless employers begin to stagger working hours, trains will be standing room only during rush hour. BART has plans to increase capacity, but not the funding.

For example, BART wants to spend $2.5 billion on new cars with three doors to allow passengers to get on and off faster. That would allow trains to run more frequently.

"We've got to be able to accommodate bicycles. People aren't going to want to drive to the BART station. They're going to want to use their bikes. We've got to figure out ways to store bikes. We've got to figure out ways to bus people better into BART. All these different methods of getting people to the system and delivering them to their destinations have got to be improved, and it takes money. We've got the plans, but no funding," says BART spokesman Linton Johnson.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is in the middle of its 25-year plan. Would a fourth bore at the Caldecott Tunnel be needed if traffic is reduced by high gas prices?

"It takes a lot of courage to do that, but in the end I think it will save us a lot of money and allow us to invest that money for a future that's actually coming, not for the future that we thought was coming 10 years ago," says Carli Paine with the Transportation and Land Use Coalition.

"We're so far behind in investing in our transportation system in the Bay Area and have been for 30 years. We have a lot of catching up to do, almost no matter what the price of gas is," says Randy Rentschler with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Washington is addressing the shift to public transit. The House passed a bill Thursday to provide $1.7 billion to allow agencies to lower fares and expand capacity as gas prices keep rising.

FUTURES MARKET: Will the price of Gas hit $5 a gallon in the Bay Area by the end of 2008?


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