STOCKTON — The rise in gas prices has been good and bad for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which operates the Altamont Commuter Express.

High prices for fuel means additional expenses for the transit system, which sends four trains from Stockton to San Jose five days a week, but it also has contributed to record ridership levels.

Thomas Reeves, spokesman for ACE, said that the transit system has been averaging 3,600 passenger trips a day, an increase of 15 percent over the last year and an upturn over the past few months.

On Tuesday, more than 4,000 people commuted to and from the Bay Area, a new record for ACE, which is seeing increases daily.

"For commuter rail, those numbers are beasts. These are definitely highs for us," Reeves said. "We're definitely seeing some record numbers here, and we can see a direct correlation with gas prices."

But the increasing gas prices also are putting a dent in ACE's budget, as the trains run on diesel fuel.

"Our costs are going up, but we have the benefit of paying rack-rate for diesel," Reeves said. "With more passengers, the trains are heavier, and we have to use more fuel going over the Altamont. We're not interested in raising fares, and we're looking at other ways of cutting back so we don't have to impact the ridership."

Tracy Mayor Brent Ives, who serves on the commission that oversees the transit system, said it was designed as an environmentally friendly option for Central Valley commuters.


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"This has always been the idea for ACE, not only when gas is high, but at all times," he said. "It's an everyday alternative to move people in a environmentally friendly way, the typical mass transit solution. People are taking a hard look at ACE, and our challenge is, when they take that look, we show them a service that is a viable solution for them." He called the combination of increased ridership and fuel costs "a kind of push," but the rail system is in this for the long haul.

"We feel this will be good in the long run for riders and good for ACE," Ives said. "If people can find ACE as a viable option, regardless of how they reach that solution, I'm happy. People should be so proud that way back when we were working for a solution that is paying dividends today for commuters from the Central Valley. No one anticipated in 1993 gas would be $5 a gallon, and now we're staring at it right down the throat."

According to a report released by AAA of Northern California, the state average for a gallon of regular gasoline was $4.47, a 53-cent increase in the past month.

The average price of gas in Tracy was $4.41, up 51 cents. According to the Lundberg Survey, which polls 7,000 stations nationwide, Stockton had the highest average price in the nation.

Reeves said that passengers interested in riding ACE can receive a "discovery ticket" to ride the train free for one round trip, and a package of three-day free round trips is available through an employer program. Interested commuters can go to www.acerail.com or call 800-411-RAIL.

Reach Mike Martinez at 209-832-3947 or mike.martinez@bayareanewsgroup.com.