Metro Transit sees record number of riders

Metro bus
Metro Transit ridership increased dramatically in the first three months of 2008.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Metro Transit posted record ridership for the first three months of this year. Officials with the transit service said there were 1.3 million more riders in 2008 than 2007. The Hiawatha light rail line helped lead the trend, with a 16 percent increase in riders.

There's no secret to why more and more people are getting buses like these that run down Sixth Street in downtown St. Paul.

Gas prices topping $3 a gallon helped drive 7 percent more passengers out of their cars and onto mass transit already this year. Crude oil hit another per-barrel record Tuesday.

Customer Services Director Bob Gibbons said Metro Transit is seeing the effects of the high price of oil on both sides of the fare box, with a spike in the cost of bus fuel as well as increased ridership.

"It's startlingly high, and I think it's capturing people's attention as they look for alternatives," Gibbons said. But there's more to the transit story than just gas prices.

Some of the biggest gains in ridership on the Metro Transit system were on the Hiawatha Light Rail line. Quarterly ridership on the train topped two million for the first time this year. Boardings on the 12 mile line were up by more than 16 percent.

That was nearly double the increase of local bus ridership for the period.

That period ended on the last day of March. It was just a week before Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed $70 million in bonding for the Central Corridor light rail line.

The new line would run for 11 miles between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.

The governor has cited concerns about street parking on the University Avenue section of the line. He's also cited the line's impact on the University of Minnesota as well as the nearly $1 billion price tag for the project.

The line's funding is contingent, in part, on expected use of the trains.

Supporters say the state's own numbers show why Central Corridor would be a good investment and the governor should rethink his veto.

Jim Erkal with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said he thinks the Hiawatha line could attract even more riders more if the Central Corridor was built.

"You look at places like Denver, which opened up a new line, their southeast line, in November of '06, and within a quarter or two they had blown past their long term projections," Erkal said. "And that one line not only outdid the ridership projections, but it helped the rest of their system. The year to year increase for their entire light rail system went up 66 percent."

State Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the house capital investment committee, said she hoped to restore the bonding money for the Central Corridor before the end of this year's legislative session.