Passenger traffic on the Hiawatha light-rail line hit an eight-year high in 2012 and helped push total ridership on Metro Transit buses and trains to more than 81 million for the year.

The 10.5 million rides on the light-rail line accounted for 13 percent of the 81,053,506 rides Metro Transit provided in 2012. That was an increase of 97,372 rides over 2011 and the most since the 12-mile line from downtown Minneapolis to Bloomington's Mall of America opened in 2004.

The number of rides on freeway-oriented express routes was up by 88,000 in 2012 to 9.5 million, while the number of rides on crosstown suburban routes grew by 1.7 percent to 1.6 million.

Rides taken on urban local routes declined by 117,000 last year to 58,734,867, a drop of 0.2 percent. Metro Transit also reported that the 700,726 rides on the Northstar Line fell by more than 3,000 rides from the 703,400 taken in 2011.

But gains on the light-rail and express-bus service offset those losses and resulted in a net increase of 165,044 rides in 2012 compared with numbers from 2011. It marked the sixth consecutive year that total ridership exceeded 76 million, something unseen since 1983.

"This represent the third straight year of ridership growth," Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb said. "For only the second time in a generation, Metro Transit ridership exceeded 81 million."

That included the 3 billionth customer the agency has served since it began operating 40 years ago.

The numbers include customers who paid fares and those who boarded trains and buses during promotions such as free rides for New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day and for Timberwolves and Lynx games.

Lamb attributed the drop in Northstar ridership to high prices and a 13 percent drop in customers traveling downtown for special events and Vikings and Twins games. After fares were reduced in August, the ridership decline slowed and the number of weekday riders increased.

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768; Twitter: @timstrib