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Mass transit demand rises, costs soar

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"You've got a time in history where these agencies could be tapping a new market and attracting the suburban people who, heretofore, have been less likely to ride [public transit]," says Stephen Reich, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "Some agencies are even contracting service because of fuel costs and decreasing government support."

The Seattle area has seen the biggest increase in the number of people riding the commuter rails: up 28 percent from last year. The primary reason is not just gasoline price hikes. Sound Transit, which runs the region's commuter trains, light rail, and buses, is in the process of finishing an ambitious expansion program started 1996. It built commuter-rail lines north and south of Seattle that started operating in 2001. In 2006, only half the number of commuters predicted 10 years earlier were riding the rails. But growth started to pick up in 2006, along with gasoline prices, and now it's going "gangbusters."

"We're growing at a clip that's about what we can do," says Linda Robson, a spokeswoman for Sound Transit. "In fact, we have scheduled to add another three round-trip commuter trains that would run between Tacoma and downtown Seattle, but we are out of space on our layover yard in Tacoma." So they're adding some track and expanding the yard. They'll add two more trains come the fall and a third in 2009, when the construction is finished.

There's a similar story under way in the Miami area, where the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority runs the Tri-Rail commuter trains from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach. In 2006, the agency completed a "double track" corridor improvement program, and since then, the number of riders has grown by between 10 and 20 percent annually. Just this past April, ridership was up 28 percent over a year ago.

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