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WASHINGTON - Gasoline is getting cheaper, but Minnesotans are still flocking to public transportation in record numbers.
Some experts say they're getting used to it -- if they can find a seat.
In fact, the Twin Cities are outpacing other parts of the nation in the growth of bus and light-rail travel, according to a survey released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association.
The third quarter of 2008 saw a 7.4 percent rise in public transit use in the metro area, totaling 22.3 million rides in all. Nationwide, buses, light rail, subways and commuter railroads saw a 6.5 percent spike, the largest quarterly increase in 25 years.
Public transit ridership began hitting record levels in July as the national average for a gallon of gas reached $4.11, the survey said. More surprising was that the trend continued, despite falling gas prices, rising transit fares and creeping unemployment.
Historically, those factors tend to drive transit ridership down, especially in combination.
"Even in the face of those three factors, in the month of October, we didn't have a ridership decline, we had a ridership increase," said Bob Gibbons, director of customer services for the Twin Cities' Metro Transit. "I think it is a lifestyle change; otherwise, we would have seen a significant decline."
But the increase in ridership comes as a mixed blessing.
While ridership over the past four years is up about 17 percent, Gibbons said, there has only been about a 2.5 percent increase in routes and service. So it's harder to find a seat, and the system is getting strained.
Jerry Krause, who commutes from his home in Minneapolis to Hamline University in St. Paul, is seeing the transit boom firsthand. Two years ago, a typical morning bus would have 18 or 19 riders, he said, and now the number has more than doubled. One afternoon last week, one of his buses ran out of room for riders to stand. "It was totally jammed with people," he said.
More people also means more stops, more loading and more unloading. "Once you start loading more and more people onto a bus, the slower and slower it is on the route," Krause said. Standing-room-only buses also mean "you don't get anything done," he said. "You can't read the paper, can't do anything. You're just sort of holding on and hoping that you're not going to be thrown into someone's lap."
Despite the rising demand, pinched revenues have already forced many transit agencies to increase fares or cut service.
In October, Metro Transit raised its rates 25 cents, a move that it may have to repeat in 2009 to offset the losses in funding, according to Gibbons. But he said that's better than cutting service.
Some Democrats in Congress say the trend could help boost support for more transit funds in President-elect Barack Obama's planned economic stimulus package.
"Congestion costs our economy $78 billion a year in wasted time and fuel," said Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn. "I call that a congestion tax that is being levied on every good and service being produced in our economy."
Staff Writer Jim Foti contributed to this report