Public transportation ridership picks up

Bay Area Rapid Transit riders exit a train at the Powell Street station in San Francisco.

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KAI RYSSDAL: The last time oil prices were this low it was April Fool's Day. It seemed like a bad joke when prices were on the way up. All kidding aside, crude dropped another 3 bucks today. Clearly, though, a couple of months of $4-a-gallon gas have taken their toll on American commuters. A mass transit group says public transportation ridership was up 5 percent this spring over a year ago.

Congress has noticed. Today the Senate banking committee took up new transit funding. We asked Marketplace's Nancy Marshall Genzer how long public transportation might stay hot.


Nancy Marshall Genzer: Metro transit agencies used to have to run ads to attract riders.

ADVERTISEMENT: Metrobus is riding through town saving more and more people from being held up at the pump.

There's no need to advertise now. The American Public Transportation Association says riders made almost 3 billion trips this spring on public transportation. Association Vice President Rose Sheridan says the extra riders are welcome but also a strain for transit agencies.

ROSE SHERIDAN: There are about 85 percent of them are reporting capacity problems.

At Metro Transit in Madison, Wis., schedule planner Colin Conn has his hands full.

COLIN CONN: We used to send out extra buses -- maybe 10 or 15 every morning to help overloaded trips. Now we're sending upwards of 40 during the morning rush hour.

Congress is now considering bills that would boost public transportation funding by about $2 billion. MIT transportation analyst Frederick Salvucci says this is the time to shift people to buses and trains permanently.

FREDERICK SALVUCCI: It's kind of what they used to call in Sunday school a teachable moment. There's an outside issue -- in this case gasoline prices -- that gets people's attention focused on an issue.

But what if gas prices fall? Salvucci says people won't go back to their cars if they have a smooth ride on public transit.

SALVUCCI: That's why I think it's so important for the government to step in now and help and not wait until next year.

Congress is promising to act before the November elections.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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