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Gas prices a wild card in Metro ridership rates

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2011

The millions expected to ride Metrorail during the National Cherry Blossom Festival or attend Washington Nationals home games will have to share space with another group this spring — commuters trying to escape high gas prices.

"Baseball season takes place; there are some early openings or events. Typically, around this time of year is when we see a bump in ridership," Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said.

During last year's festival, Metro recorded roughly 10.9 million rail-passenger trips, resulting in the agency's having three of its top five weekday-ridership days in its 34-year history. This year's festival began Sunday and runs through April 10, with the blossoms projected to peak this week —  the same week the Nationals begin their season with a home game on Thursday.

Gas prices consistently have stayed above $3 a gallon for the year, making public transportation a more economical option for some.

The average price per gallon for regular gasoline in the United States was $3.56 a gallon on March 21 — up 74 cents from a year ago and the highest since the end of 2008, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The price of gas peaked in mid-July 2008 at $4.05 per gallon. Gas prices began their climb in March of that year, EIA records show; per-gallon prices hit more than $3 and stayed there until October, when the price dropped to a few cents less than $3.50.

Metro officials could not provide exact numbers on how gas prices are impacting ridership this year, saying such factors as historical data and the regional economy also play a part. However, ridership numbers seem to follow the peaks and dips in 2008 gas prices.

Peter Benjamin, chairman of Metro's Finance and Administration Committee, said the agency expects "some increases in ridership" this spring as the result of the long-term effects of gas prices rising, but nothing "dramatic."

Maryland Transit Administration spokesman David Clark encourages people to consider public transportation when gas prices head north.

"Public transportation has always been economically and environmentally beneficial, but recent increases in gasoline prices show just how much people really can save by taking a bus or train," said Mr. Clark, also agreeing that it is "too soon for ridership numbers to show the full impact recent gasoline prices are having on commuters."

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said the agency is preparing for the crowds. Metro crews are converting some six-car trains to eight-car trains and last week were scheduled to add 10 rail cars, or 640 more seats, during weekday morning and afternoon peak hours — putting a total of 860 rail cars into service. Mr. Sarles also said Metro would curtail weekend track maintenance work until the end of the festival.

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