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With gas prices, Xpress buses are packed

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Georgia Regional Transportation Authority buses have been almost overwhelmed by commuters, with the recent rise in gas prices.

Preliminary numbers, released late last week, show daily boarding increased by about 1,000, said William Mecke, GRTA spokesman.

"What's happening on some routes ... with the gas prices, we're having a few runs on some routes where people have to stand in the aisles," Mecke said.

Each Xpress bus holds 57 passengers and, officials recently found out, has standing space for between 12 and 15 people.

Drivers have reported some occasions where they had to turn passengers away, Mecke said.

GRTA was already seeing a steady climb in readership, according to fare box reports, of about 300 per month. In March and April, though, as gas prices moved toward record highs, that number jumped, with an increase of about 500 riders per month.

At a park-and-ride lot on Ga. Highway 138 in Stockbridge, GRTA passengers filled all the available parking spaces. Transportation authorities re-striped the lot and added 70 additional spaces, but they were almost immediately filled.

Normally, fewer people ride the buses in June, but Mecke said the drivers have reported they don't see any drop off.

David Spear, at the Atlanta Regional Commission, said there has been a noted decrease in road traffic, which may be correlated to the $4 price of a gallon of gas.

ARC traffic counts on the interstates passing through Clayton County show a seven or eight percent decrease in the number of cars on the road, from October to April. Metro-wide, ARC statistics show a decrease in gallons of gas purchased, too. Spear said reports show fuel consumption dropped by about eight percent, from the spring of 2007 to the spring of 2008.

The statistics reinforce the need for alternative transportation, Spear said.

"We have to move away from petroleum-powered automobiles," Spear said. "People are trying to find alternatives. People are desperate to find ways to get out of their cars, and right now, there aren't a lot of options."

Emory Morsberger, chairman of Georgians for the Brain Train, said gas prices may be the final motivating factor -- more than congestion and business concerns -- pushing Atlanta to build a region-wide transportation system.

"The higher gas goes, the more people are going to demand something," Morsberger said. "I think $4-a-gallon gasoline, and a lot of people who can't get their pickup trucks out of the driveway, has changed people's way of thinking."

Some change is already on its way, as Gov. Sonny Perdue rolled out a new transportation initiative late last week, and authorized GRTA officials to start negotiating for 28 new buses.

Mecke said the new buses take six to eight months to order and build, and will roll in "around Thanksgiving time." In addition to replacing the depleted stock of reserve buses, the new stock in the fleet will be deployed to the most crowded routes, including Stockbridge.

"We really want everyone to have a seat," Mecke said. "But we're glad people are riding. It's one of those good-bad problems."