Rising gas prices push drivers to public transit

Jackie Jilberto, center, rides a commuter train to Los Angeles March 8, 2011

LOS ANGELES - Gas prices rose Tuesday but are still a far cry from the all-time high they hit in 2008. At that time, a lot of Americans turned to mass transit to save money. But such commuters are finding a very different ride this time around, CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy reports.

In Pasadena, Calif., Jackie Gilberto rides the rails to her job in downtown Los Angeles.

So why did she ditch her car?

"About three months ago in November when I realized I was spending about $400 a month in gas," Gilberto said.

The train costs Gilberto $62 per month, and she now has plenty of company. Rail ridership in Los Angeles is up 8 percent versus last year -- from 273,756 in January 2010 to 298,180 last January, according to the local transit authority.

The city says these numbers are because of gas prices. Trouble in the Middle East caused pump prices to climb for the 21st straight day Tuesday, adding nearly a penny at the end of the day for $3.517 per gallon.

"$51.87, that's crazy high," one Californian said after he filled up his vehicle.

But just as more people are using public transportation, budget cuts are forcing cities to cut back on service and raise fares.

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In the past two years, 84 percent of public transit systems have raised fares, cut service or are considering it, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Cleveland dropped 90 buses from their routes. New Jersey recently cut 30 commuter trains, and Sacramento, Calif., slashed 17 percent of its entire transit system.

The problem is that public transportation is not a moneymaker. What transit riders pay in fares covers just 32 percent of costs. Taxpayers pick up most of the tab, according to the public transportation association.

"Public transportation is a public service," said William Millar, the association's president. "You don't expect your police department to pay for itself or your schools to pay for themselves."

But the association says transit saves money. It contends that going from a two-car household to a one-car household can save, on average, nearly $10,000 per year.

Yet there's also this reality.

"It's hard to give up your car," another Californian said.

So despite the pain at the pump, traffic congestion is actually getting worse. A report out Tuesday shows travel times are up 10 percent in the past year, likely due to more commuters on the road as the job market improves.

"I will not curtail my driving one bit," a Golden State driver said.

Gilberto won't complain about those who want to drive. There's already enough mass on her transit.

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    Ben Tracy is a CBS News senior national and environmental correspondent based in Washington, D.C.