LANSING- Public transit ridership in the state increased by 6 percent last year, resulting in significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption, according to a report by Environment Michigan.Smart_Bus

The group found that motorists drove 4.4 billion fewer miles in 2008 than in 2007, saving 35.6 million gallons of gas and reducing global warming pollution by 321,000 tons of carbon dioxide in the process.

Environment Michigan associate Shelley Vinyard said “wildly fluctuating” gas prices probably played a major role in the changes.

The Ann Arbor-based advocacy organization researches environmental issues.

By taking advantage of public transit, “we can decrease our energy dependence and reduce carbon dioxide pollution,” Vinyard said. “We’re excited to see that demand is increasing. People are voting with their feet and using public transit while driving less.”

On a national scale, transit ridership rose 4 percent as gas consumption dropped by 4 billion gallons in 2008.

Overall, carbon dioxide emissions decreased by 37 million tons.

Ridership jumped 15 percent last year in Southeast Michigan, said Beth Dryden, director of external affairs, marketing and communications at the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation.

SMART serves nearly 13 million people in Macomb, Wayne, Oakland, and Monroe counties with 54 bus routes and 7,000 stops.

Of Smart’s 13 million riders, 70 percent relied on bus service to get to work, while students from colleges such as the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Macomb Community College and Oakland University accounted for 20 percent.

Although $4-a-gallon gas had an impact on last year’s higher ridership figures, Dryden said the trend will continue because of the influx of new riders who prefer to save $6,000 a year on fuel and other vehicle-related expenses.

“Once they try public transit and see how convenient it is, they stick with it,” Dryden said. “As the only public transportation service in Southeast Michigan, it helps with the economic vitality of the region.”

More than 75,000 businesses and 1.3 million jobs are located within four blocks of a SMART route, Dryden said.

Ridership was just as strong in the western portion of the state.

The Macatawa Area Express Transportation Authority (MAX), which provides bus service for Holland and Zealand, experienced a 26 percent boost in ridership last year, said Linda LeFebre, MAX coordinator.

“We saw huge increases,” LeFebre said. “Consumers in the area were looking for an option to reduce their expenses. We’re glad that people are considering other options.”

In Grand Rapids, ridership rose from 8.1 million in 2007 to 9 million last year, said Jennifer Kalczuk, external relations manager of The Rapid.

Kalczuk gives only partial credit to the gas price spike, attributing some of the rise to improved services and increased environmental awareness.

“Our ridership has been going up consistently,” Kalczuk said. “As people become more environmentally conscious, they are using more alternatives. We’ve actually doubled our ridership since 2000.”

With fewer people driving and buying vehicles, gas tax and vehicle registration revenues are taking a major hit, said Brent Bair, managing director of the Oakland County Road Commission.

Bair said that nearly 60 percent of commission’s $100 million budget depends on gas and vehicle registration.

As a result of depleted funds, the commission will be able to employ only 150 snow plow drivers this winter, down from last year’s 190.

Several road commissions have converted paved roads to gravel because they can’t afford to maintain them, Bair said.

“It’s getting pretty dire,” he said. “Our level of maintenance won’t be as good. We’ve been warning legislators for years that a crisis is coming and it’s here.”

According to the Environment Michigan study, transportation accounts for more than two-thirds of America’s oil consumption and nearly a third its carbon dioxide emissions.

Hugh McDiarmid, communications director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said the asthma rate could be “alleviated” as smog levels fall because of reduced tailpipe emission.

“It’s one little step towards curbing our global warming pollution,” McDiarmid said. “It’s good news for the environment and people’s pocket books.”

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