The number of people using metro area park and ride facilities in the seven-county metro area dropped slightly in 2014 and just over half of the available parking spaces were being used, according to a presentation Metro Transit officials gave last week to the Metropolitan Council's Transportation Committee.

But that does not mean that the system is overbuilt and demand is waning, said Stephen Hannon, an associate planner with Metro Transit.

"Facilities are long-term investments and put in places to attract new customers," he said, noting that usage was up substantially at three facilities that had recently been expanded or added to the system.

A survey of the 150 park and ride facilities taken in October found that 18,265 vehicles were parked in the lots, filling just 56 percent of the system that has room for 32,000 vehicles. Overall usage fell from 19,149 vehicles in 2013, but it was the third highest total since 2004.

The annual survey is used to determine where to put new facilities and update service, said Berry Farrington, a Metro Transit planner. The trend is to build bigger lots where Metro Transit can provide better and more frequent service, she said.

The system grew by 1,382 spaces with largest growth at the Hwy. 610/Noble Parkway (498) and Maple Grove Parkway (417) park and rides. Both lots were expanded in 2014. The system also saw three new lots open along Hwy. 65 in northern Anoka County while one lot at Hwy. 212 and Shady Oak Road in Eden Prairie closed.

Maplewood Mall, which also was recently expanded, saw the largest increase with 139 more users last year. Ramsey Station, Apple Valley Transit Station, Maple Grove Parkway and Hwy. 610/Noble Parkway in Brooklyn Park all saw increases of 50 or more.

"These expansions were warranted," Hannon said. "It shows that facility expansions at popular locations can fuel growth."

On the other end of the spectrum, the I-35W and 95th Avenue lot in Blaine saw the biggest decrease, losing 217 riders. The Burnsville Transit Station was down by 208, Foley Boulevard in Coon Rapids lost 130 and the 28th Avenue Station in Bloomington fell by 120. Two lots in Maplewood - Hmong Alliance Church and the County Road 61 and County Road C - had a combined loss of 137 riders.

Some of those losses were attributed to riders switching to other park and rides, Hannon said.

Most park and ride lots are served exclusively with express bus service, but three lots served by light or commuter rail lines saw some of the sharpest declines. The 28th Avenue Station and Fort Snelling South, both served by the Metro Blue Line, saw declines of 120 and 70 respectively, while the Coon Rapids Riverdale Station, served by the Northstar Commuter line, saw usage fall by 72.

Ridership on both the Blue Line and Northstar was down in 2014.

Users won't have trouble finding a place to park except at three lots at or over capacity, the survey found. They included the Maple Grove Transit Station, the Guardian Angels Church in Oakdale and the Woodbury Theatre. To alleviate crowding in the east metro, Metro Transit is planning a new park and ride lot at I-94 and Manning Avenue in Woodbury, Farrington said.

Of those who use park and rides, 74 percent live in communities and counties that levy a tax to help pay for the transit system. But 26 percent come from cities and counties that don't pay to fund the transit system, an eye-opener for some Met Council members.

Park and rides are free, but some council members wondered if there should be a charge for "freeloaders," those who live outside the taxing zone.

"Their property taxes don't pay for the system, however they do pay the fare and help relive congestion on the freeway network," said Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb. "We struggled about charging extra at the park and rides, but there are operational and policy issues related to that. There are no easy answers."

Photo: Metro Transit

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