The number of people using park-and-ride facilities in the seven-county metro area dropped slightly in 2014, and just over half of available parking spaces were used, according to Metro Transit officials.

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

"Facilities are long-term investments and put in places to attract new customers," he said.

Hannon said usage was up substantially at three facilities that had recently been expanded or added.

An October survey of the 150 park-and-ride facilities 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 in 2014. Lots were expanded at Hwy. 610/Noble Parkway and Maple Grove Parkway. Three new lots opened 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.

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

On the other end of the spectrum, the Interstate 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 locations in Maplewood — Hmong Alliance Church and the County Road 61 and County Road C lots — had a combined loss of 137 riders.

Three lots served by light-rail 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 were down in 2014.

Three lots were 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.

Charge for 'freeloaders?'

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 relieve 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."