Wednesday, July 05, 2000

High gas prices have silver lining

Buses fuller, air clearer

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        And now, some good news about increased gas prices: They may be helping to increase area bus ridership and clean the Tristate's air.

        As regular gas cost an average $1.71 a gallon Tuesday, there is circumstantial evidence that high-priced fuel may be having unintended benefits:

        • Metro Transit Authority officials estimate up to 50 percent more riders this June over last on some commuter routes. Final totals aren't in, but officials expect an overall increase of 2-3 percent — or as many as 2,000 new riders a day.

        • The area's levels of ozone in the air decreased in June compared with the same month last year. Cost-conscious drivers may be parking their cars longer, meaning less vehicle exhaust to pollute the air.

        A cause-and-effect relationship is unproved. Yet Metro officials think gas that costs as much as 70 percent more this summer than last is making a mark.

        “We do believe gas prices have had an effect on ridership,” Metro spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers says.

        Officials cite Route 82, a nonstop run between suburban Union Township in Clermont County and downtown Cincinnati.

        During the week of June 19-23 — when regular gas hit a high of $1.90 a gallon here — ridership on the route was up 44 percent, to 1,556 people a day.

        “It was a great deal before, and now it's a downright bargain,” says John Becker of Union Township, who regularly takes the bus. The $1 he pays to ride each

        day is nothing compared with the cost of gas, depreciation on his car and downtown parking fees, he says.

        In Northern Kentucky, ridership on the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky's 138 buses was up 4.9 percent for June.

        And bus drivers everywhere are reporting that new riders are listing high gas prices as a main reason for leaving their cars behind.

        Overall, more than 72,000 people ride the area's main bus systems daily compared with about 1.2 million vehicles driving on Tristate roads.

        Two years ago, a study done for Metro and TANK reported about 25 percent of rush-hour commuters rode a bus, TANK assistant general manager Jim Seibert says.

        “That's probably higher now, but I'm sure we can do better,” Mr. Seibert says. “There is still capacity available. We want to fill the buses if we can.”

        The Tristate's ozone levels, meanwhile, declined in June compared with last year, when many of the city's seven monitoring sites recorded five-year highs.

        Ozone, an odorless, colorless gas that is a major component of smog, is a byproduct of car and truck exhaust. It can cause respiratory difficulty, especially for those with pre-existing problems.

        Cincinnati has come close to being out of compliance with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency for years, but was ruled in compliance last year. Cities that don't comply with federal rules and fail to establish a plan for controlling ozone risk loss of federal highway funds.

        Tim Keener, a University of Cincinnati environmental engineering professor, says it's unclear what impact rising gas prices have had in keeping cars off the roads. And weather could have been a bigger factor in lowering smog: June was relatively cool and wet, factors that inhibit smog, while June 1999 recorded an average high in the mid-80s, about six degrees above normal.

        But ozone levels are “definitely down,” he says, adding that if there were fewer cars on the road, “it would be safe to say that ... had an effect,” he says.

        Nick Lang, a Metro bus driver for 31 years, says he's heard several new passengers grumbling about high gas prices.

        “I used to get 10-15 on my first run at 6:35, and now it's up to 20-25,” says Mr. Lang, a Route 82 express driver. “Compared to what it was when it started, it's been a dramatic increase.”

        Peggy Stites says she's taken the express route off and on since it began last year, but only recently started taking it daily.

        “I even take it on Friday, when I could leave early if I drove,” Ms. Stites says. “Between gas what it is and parking, it just costs a fortune nowadays. This way, it's $20 a month, and I can't fill up my tank for that anymore.”


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