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For mass transit, mass investment

With record ridership and fuel prices, subways, trains, and buses are strapped.

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High gas prices are prying record numbers of Americans from their cars and onto buses, subways, and commuter trains. That has many pluses: It eases pocketbook expenses, road congestion, and pollution. But it's also straining providers of mass transit – a signal for needed change.

In Washington DC, the Metro subway and bus system is so stretched at peak hours that officials say the government and other large employers may have to mandate staggered work schedules if gas goes over $5 a gallon – once unimaginable.

In San Francisco and the Bay Area, seats near the doors of some BART trains have been removed to create more standing room for a surge in commuters. Meanwhile, about 20 percent of the nation's public bus operators have had to reduce service because of the high cost of diesel fuel, according to the American Public Transport Association (APTA).

Mass-transit ridership that's at its highest in 50 years presents an opportunity to beef up outdated systems in many areas of the country. But it's not going to be easy.

For starters, the same price pinch that's squeezing drivers is being felt by transit operators. They must pay more for fuel and their revenue sources are declining as the economy slows. More people may be exchanging traffic for tokens, but in some cases, fares cover as little as 20 percent of operating expenses. Mass transit depends greatly on local, state, and federal money – from sales taxes, for instance, which are slowing with the economy, and from gas taxes, which have not kept up with inflation.

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