Tipping point trouble

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Ironically, while high gas prices are encouraging more people to ride transit, rising diesel prices are also causing mass transit systems nationwide to raise fares, cut service, lay off staff, and delay capital spending. So, at a time when demand for buses and trains is at one of its highest points in history, we have transit agencies cutting back. This makes no sense.” -Warren S. George, president, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU).


There are more than a few unspoken issues in Mr. George‘s comment above regarding cutbacks at mass transit agencies across the U.S. (big dollar unionized health and pension benefits, plus substantial annual cost of living pay increases, being some of them) but his overall point is very important - especially for truckers that‘ve dealt with heavily congested highways in and around our major cities year after year.


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We‘re at a point where a massive shift is starting to take place, whereby daily commuters are abandoning their personal vehicles in favor of using buses and trains to travel from home to work and vice versa. This is a vary big deal, because it‘s the removal of these daily commuters from the highways that‘ll help reduce roadway congestion and cut fuel demand - which should help lower fuel prices and thus diesel costs for truckers.


Of course, like anything in life, there‘s a big IF in the middle of all of this. If transit agencies can handle the increased ridership, if they can provide consistent on-time service, if commuters don‘t start backsliding if the price of fuel starts to decline ... if, if, if and more ifs to boot. Yet we could be poised for big changes to our transportation habits - and that could end up substantially reducing our need for imported oil.


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For example, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) reported that Americans took 2.6 billion trips on public transportation in the first three months of this year - almost 85 million more trips than in 2007 during the same time period.


“There‘s no doubt that the high gas prices are motivating people to change their travel behavior,” said William Millar, APTA‘s president. “More and more people have decided that taking public transportation is the quickest way to beat the high gas prices.”


Last year 10.3 billion trips were taken on U.S. public transportation - the highest number of trips taken in fifty years. In the first quarter of 2008, public transportation continued to climb and rose by 3.3%. In contrast, the Federal Highway Administration has reported that the vehicle miles traveled on our nation‘s roads declined by 2.3% in the first quarter this year, APTA reported.


The problem is that the cost to operate transit systems nationwide is exploding as well - driven by the same fuel price spikes that are leading to heavier ridership. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) noted that transit agencies are paying 44% more for fuel now versus last year and want the U.S. Congress to pass legislation providing transit systems with funds to help offset the high cost of fuel. “Transit needs to be part of the solution - not the victim - of high gas prices,” stated ATU‘s George.


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He believes that would be extra money well spent, too. ATU‘s analysis indicates that if Americans used public transportation for roughly 10% of their daily travel needs, the U.S. would reduce its dependence on imported oil by more than 40% -- nearly the amount of oil the U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia each year. In fact, increased use of public transportation is the single most effective way to reduce America‘s energy consumption, he believes.


But without help from the federal government, service cuts and fare increases will continue. “Between the price of fuel, food, and health care, working families are getting squeezed like never before,” noted George. “People are looking to transit for relief. The last things they need are fare increases and service cuts to make their lives more difficult. Congress needs to provide the resources necessary to keep these systems operating at maximum capacity and subsidizing transit fuel costs to move millions of people more efficiently just makes sense.”


And public transportation providers consume a lot of fuel - more than 760 million gallons of diesel and gasoline annually, according to APTA‘s research. And for every penny added to the cost of diesel and gasoline, public transportation providers face an increased cost of more than $7.6 million dollars.


“A penny increase in diesel and gasoline costs would add more than $5.4 million to the cost of bus operations nationwide,” noted APTA‘s Millar. “ Based on the current national average fare revenue of 89 cents per unlinked bus trip, agencies would need to add more 6 million trips on an annual basis to recover just a penny increase. An increase in fuel cost of $1 per gallon would require that agencies carry more than 600 million additional passenger trips per year, on bus services alone; an increase of more than 10 percent over current bus ridership levels. Such an increase would no doubt require additional services, and additional operating costs, so it‘s easy to see why agencies are struggling to meet surging fuel costs.”


Is offering more subsidies to public transit the best way to go? Maybe, maybe not. One thing is for certain, however - the more people off the road means less congestion and delay for truckers. And that is a good thing.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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