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Rough Summer Expected for Gas Prices and Public Transit

A perfect storm is brewing within Pierce Transit as opposing forces converge to negatively affect the agency's ability to serve riders.

Rising gasoline prices are driving more Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula residents to public transportation and local officials say demand could easily exceed Pierce Transit's ridership capacity by summer’s end.

If that happens, bus drivers may be forced to bypass waiting passengers at some stops, according to Lind Simonsen, public information officer for the Lakewood-based agency.

Pierce Transit serves a 414-square-mile area with an estimated population of 767,000, including the cities and towns of Lakewood, Auburn, Bonney Lake, Buckley, DuPont, Fife, Edgewood, Fircrest, Gig Harbor, Milton, Orting, Puyallup, Ruston, Steilacoom, Sumner, Tacoma and University Place, along with unincorporated areas of Pierce County.

The agency operates on more than 900 miles of city streets, county roads and state highways from Lakewood and Seattle through Tacoma and on to Olympia.

Earlier this year, a compressed natural gas at Pierce Transit's headquarters of undetermined cause forced the agency to advance their reduced level of service. Add to that the typical seasonal ridership spikes that occur when weather improves, plus mounting prices at the gas pump, and you have the recipe for a "perfect storm" later this year, Simonsen said.

“The last time, three years ago, prices got up to approaching and exceeding $4 a gallon and we had a flood of people riding the bus,” Simonsen noted.

While anecdotally more people already are leaving their personal vehicles home because of higher gas prices, Simonsen said the CNG fire makes it virtually impossible to measure the effect of gas prices on public-transit ridership.

Overall, average numbers for the third week of March dropped 16.6 percent from 2010 to 2011, dipping from 45,800 to 38,200, according to Pierce Transit figures.  Most of that, Simonsen said, was the result of the CNG fire and voter rejection of a public-transportation Proposition 2 ballot measure earlier this year to provide more operating capital to Pierce Transit.

Simonsen used the perfect storm analogy to describe the convergence of several forces, including the fire, ballot measure, weather and gas prices. With more sunny days approaching and gas prices simultaneously expected to edge into the mid-to-$4 per gallon range, demand for public-transit services is expected to increase through the fall.

Impact of CNG fire ballot measure failure

The CNG fire and ballot measure’s failure already forced Pierce Transit to implement 20 percent cuts in service that originally were scheduled for June. The agency is still looking at slashing another 15 percent in October to make ends meet.

Michelle Parvinen, member services director for the Olympia-based Washington State Transit Association, said higher gasoline prices definitely produce higher demands for public transportation.

“I can tell you that there has been a sharp increase in ridership whenever we see peak gas prices,” she said.  “There were sharp increases in public-transit usage during the last gasoline increases in 2008."

WSDOT analyzed conditions on seven major Seattle-area commuting corridors in the first six months of 2008 as gas prices surged higher than $4 per gallon.  Average travel times for drivers on six of seven corridors improved during the peak periods as the strong economy (at the time) kept vehicle volumes high, with peak period volumes increasing by 2 to 4 percent.

Traffic analysis and effects of higher gas prices

State transportation officials worked with the University of Washington’s Transportation Center to conduct a study of the effects of higher gas prices on seven key corridors across the Puget Sound metropolitan region during the first six months of 2008.

Even as gas prices declined sharply amid the fall 2008 economic downturn, skyrocketing gas prices of the spring and early summer presented a change in driver behavior, state officials said.

Traffic declined on weekends and evenings as drivers reduced discretionary trips, changed destinations and cut trips to save money, the report noted.

At the same time, transit agencies serving Puget Sound communities reported increased passenger boardings tied to record fuel prices. Buses, trains and vanpools all experienced greater demand as commuters sought alternatives to reach work, the report said.

According to the WSDOT, Puget Sound region travel trends differ from the national norm. The region experienced two distinct trends in 2008—an increase in peak hour travel demand due to continued employment growth and a decrease in off-peak travel demand due to soaring gas prices.

Following are key facts for Washington state transportation:

·  5.1 million licensed drivers

·  4.2 million registered passenger vehicles

·  6.8 million total registered vehicles

·  56 billion vehicle miles traveled

·  531 gallons of fuel consumed per vehicle per year on average

·  17.22 miles per gallon on average

·  9,601 miles per vehicle on average

·  233 miles of HOV freeway lanes complete

·  2,498 vanpools

·  20,014 vanpool riders daily

·  31 transit systems

·  220 million transit passenger trips

Sources: Office of Finance Management, Department of Licensing; Washington State Department of Transportation (2009).

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