Seattle-area transit ridership grew in late 2011 and is poised to increase further this year.

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Seattle-area transit lines seem on the brink of a ridership spike that will pack more buses and fill some trains.

Ridership on Sound Transit buses and rail grew 12 percent in the last quarter of 2011 compared to a year earlier, to an average 86,200 boardings per weekday. King County Metro bus service gained 3 percent, for around 370,000 average weekday passengers.

“We think that’s a good sign of the economy starting to move (up), and these were before gas prices started to go up again,” Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl told transit-board members Thursday.

The top performer was the south-end Sounder commuter-train line from Tacoma to Seattle, which gained 27 percent.

But the north Sounder from Everett continues to lag — dropping 4 percent for the entire year, even as express bus use from Everett grew 20 percent, reported the agency’s citizen-oversight panel, which called for a review this spring.

Link light-rail between downtown and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport gained 12 percent compared to fourth-quarter 2010, prompting a spokesman to tweet this month the upswing “smells like victory.” An average train carried 86 riders, while the line served an average 24,070 riders per weekday.

On the other hand, the official report acknowledged light rail carries fewer people than initial predictions.

The $2.6 billion, 16-mile starter line remains well short of its pre-construction forecast to reach 45,000 daily boardings by 2020, according to John Niles, writer of the Public Interest Transportation Forum blog. “I call it the Sound Transit confession,” says Niles, who fears the agency will underperform on its future suburban lines.

Sound Transit’s 18 express-bus lines carried 48,100 riders per weekday, up 13 percent from a year earlier.

Average gas prices have jumped from $3.47 to $3.86 a gallon in Greater Seattle since Jan. 1, according to Analysts predict a national average of $4.25 this spring, so prices here could be near $4.50.

Last time gas prices nosed past the $4 mark, in mid-2008, Metro exceeded 400,000 weekday bus boardings.

General Manager Kevin Desmond said Thursday the agency might reach that level again in 2012. Earlier this month, he cited full buses to argue against a U.S. House proposal to trim federal spending for local transit.

Last year, he said, Metro’s new RapidRide A Line on International Boulevard South, with its roomier buses and frequent service, attracted more people than conventional buses.

Tolls on the Highway 520 bridge are sending more commuters to the popular cross-lake buses. West Seattle routes 120 and 54 gained riders because they’re quicker than driving through the congested Highway 99 tunnel construction detour.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

On Twitter @mikelindblom.