Seattle sees big gains in public transit ridership

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SEATTLE — The Seattle area saw big gains in public transit ridership last year, as more people boarded buses, trains and subways nationally than at any time since the 1950s.

Record ridership on Sound Transit drove the increase, with about 30.3 million boardings last year, an increase of more than 8 percent from 2012. The agency operates regional buses, the Central Link light rail and the Sounder commuter rail.

Spokesman Bruce Gray attributes the increase to the improving economy: "There's more jobs and more people riding the trains to get to work," he said.

Statistics from the American Public Transportation Association show that King County's bus system saw ridership jump more than 3 percent, as did Kitsap Transit in Bremerton. It was up one-half of 1 percent in Spokane.

However, the figures also show that bus ridership was down slightly in Olympia, Tacoma, Richland and Vancouver.

It was also down more than 12 percent in Everett. The Everett Transit System cut its service 15 percent in mid-2012 to balance its books, and it stopped offering free rides to seniors and some other populations -- charging them 25 cents instead, said agency spokeswoman Sabina Popa.

"People travel a little differently when they ride for free than when they have to pay a fare, no matter how small it is," she said.

Washington State Ferries booked more than 22.5 million passenger trips last year, up a little more than 1 percent from 2012.

In Portland, meanwhile, ridership in the region's much-touted TriMet system has fallen off.

The new data show it was down 3.8 percent from the past year.

In 2013, TriMet recorded 98.8 million rides, compared to about 102.7 million rides in 2012.

TriMet's spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says the recent decrease is due to the elimination of the Free Rail Zone in Portland, fare hikes, more fare enforcement, and service cuts made during the recession.

The agency says it has added back more bus service in September and plans to restore frequent bus service on its busiest Portland routes. A new Portland-to-Milwaukie light rail line is also slated to open in 2015.

Ridership on MAX, the TriMet's light rail, saw the largest dip, 6.1 percent. Some 38.4 million trips were taken on MAX in 2013, about 2,000 less than the previous year.

TriMet bus ridership also decreased 2.4 percent, going from about 60.4 million rides in 2012 to about 58.9 million in 2013.

The area's commuter rail line saw more success. The Westside Express Service or WES, which connects Beaverton and Wilsonville, saw a 10 percent increase in ridership. Rides increased from 430,000 in 2012 to 480,000 in 2013.