The combination of a growing work force and $3-per-gallon gasoline is luring record numbers of riders onto King County Metro buses. The buses handled an...

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The combination of a growing work force and $3-per-gallon gasoline is luring record numbers of riders onto King County Metro buses.

The buses handled an estimated 110 million boardings last year, nearly a 7 percent increase over the 2006 number, the agency reported Wednesday. It is the largest increase in at least a decade, officials said. Buses handled about 365,000 boardings per weekday.

Bigger crowds aren’t a surprise to commuters. Several people waiting for buses at the Pioneer Square station in the downtown Seattle bus tunnel said it’s often tough to find a seat on their routes to South King County.

“It’s overcrowded. There’s not enough buses,” said Geylar Greer, who has been riding Route 150 from the Tukwila Park-and-Ride to the King County Courthouse for seven years. When her bus showed up Wednesday afternoon — standing-room only — Greer and her “bus buddy,” Charissa Portillo, entered through the rear door. That’s where they’re most likely to find seats, because some passengers hop off at the next stop to catch the Sounder train.

There is enough demand to fill the buses that Metro plans to add in the next few years, said John Resha, executive director of the Downtown Transportation Alliance, a partnership of the city, Metro, Sound Transit and the Downtown Seattle Association.

Next month, Metro will receive the first 22 of 122 buses promised in the 2006 “Transit Now” ballot measure, funded by a sales-tax increase.

The remaining buses will go to bus rapid transit routes in the 2010s, serving West Seattle, Ballard, Federal Way to SeaTac, Bellevue-Overlake-Redmond, and Aurora Avenue North. Meanwhile, Sound Transit’s new Link light-rail line is scheduled to open in late 2009 from downtown to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Gasoline prices cause high bus ridership, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. “A small increase has no effect, but when it gets to be $3 a gallon, it’s one of those places where people say, ‘Whooo.’ “

Prices broke the $3 mark in spring 2006, but now prices are staying over $3, so people sense they need to change their commuting patterns, Resha said. In addition, “you’ve now got a green ethic that’s growing in a lot of people” to reduce pollution, he said.

Hallenbeck, a bus commuter himself, said the region can’t afford to build new highways. Therefore the roads clog up, and people look at alternatives, he said.

Cora Nixon said she’s willing to take three buses and spend nearly 90 minutes each way to travel from Renton to Bellevue Community College, where she works as a research analyst. She’d rather ride than fight traffic and “crazy” drivers. “On the bus you can sleep, read, and meet wonderful people,” Nixon said, hugging her “bus buddy,” Julie Vig.

The cost of downtown Seattle parking is another motivation. Prime spaces run $170 to $250 a month, Resha said. In certain locations such as South Lake Union, previously free curbside spaces are now metered, so people have to consider changing their habits, he said.

Seattle ranks seventh in the U.S. in the proportion of workers within city limits who commute using public transportation, at 17 percent, according to a census report last year.

Long-term, the city and Metro Transit are working to reduce auto use by offering transit alternatives at the same time that downtown parking grows more slowly than the number of workers, said Kevin Desmond, general manager of Metro.

Countywide, employment grew 2.5 percent last year, he said. Sales of employer-subsidized transit passes increased 27 percent last year, and van pooling increased 18 percent, Metro said.

Transit now

Metro planners have been “chasing the market” by trying to figure out where demand will grow, Desmond said.

One example is the new Route 180 between Auburn, Kent, SeaTac and Burien, where a new “Airport Connector” serves 900 riders each weekday. The related Route 150 was shortened in September 2006, to provide more frequent service from Kent and Tukwila to downtown Seattle. On Feb. 9, Metro will add two Eastside routes: No. 221, a north-south local line between the Eastgate and Redmond transit centers; and No. 248, an east-west local line from Kirkland to Redmond.

Convenience is a huge influence on bus ridership, Hallenbeck said.

“You live in Sumner and work in downtown Seattle, you hop on the Sounder train. You work in the Kent Highlands, you need to drive. Does the bus trip work?” he said.

Some potential riders avoid transit because the buses or certain stops are dirty and unsafe. Resha said a recent improvement in police patrols and garbage cleanup on Third Avenue in Seattle should make trips more pleasant. “We’re growing this, and growing it so quickly, we’ve got to make sure we have a great transit environment,” he said.

To Resha, a much bigger issue is whether there are enough buses to offer frequent service. He also said officials need to figure out how to get more buses through downtown, where the bus stops are congested.

Hallenbeck said that if the county were willing politically to put transit where it is the most used, it would carry even more people. Seattle officials often complain that Metropolitan King County Council policies focus money on the suburbs that could otherwise serve busy in-city routes.

But on the other hand, Hallenbeck said, the Redmond resident whose bus carries just a handful of people pays the same taxes, so he has just as much right to a bus by his house as does someone in Seattle.

“Time, money and demographics,” Hallenbeck said. “Add it all together and you’ll get a lot of people on the bus.”

Staff reporters Keith Ervin and Amy Roe contributed to this article. Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or