RALEIGH — \ John Sorrell sat outside Moore Square transit station on a windy afternoon last week, looking over paperwork as he waited for the Wake Forest-Raleigh express bus.
Sorrell, 26, does lots of waiting on his afternoon commute. The bus that carries him home leaves downtown at 5:20 p.m. - a half-hour after he finishes at work.
"You lose that little bit of time, but you can get it back sitting on the bus," he said. "You can read, study - or sleep."
For Sorrell, who started riding two years ago, the rationale is simple: "It's definitely a money thing."
As gas prices push toward $4 a gallon, the "money thing" is causing thousands of Triangle commuters to change their travel habits, new figures show.
Raleigh's CAT system is on pace to exceed 6 million passenger trips by the end of the fiscal year in July, an 11.2 percent increase over last year.
The bus service carried 46,312 more passengers in March than in the same month a year ago, officials said. Gas prices have increased correspondingly, reaching a statewide average of $3.61 in the past week, 86 cents higher than this time last year.
Other Triangle communities are seeing similar ridership surges:
In Cary, the C-TRAN fixed-route system hit 145,690 passenger trips in the last fiscal year, a 39 percent increase over the previous year, town figures showed.
Chapel Hill Transit, the state's second-largest transit system with service to Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC-Chapel Hill, reached 7 million passenger trips after a high of 7.2 million in 2009.
Durham Area Transit Authority saw a 14.8 percent increase in ridership in January and a 21.8 percent increase in February from the same periods last year.
If gas hits $4 a gallon across the nation, as many experts warn, an additional 670 million passenger trips could be expected, resulting in more than 10.8 billion trips per year, says a study this month from the American Public Transportation Association.
"We saw this same story in 2008 and several times before where high gas prices caught our country without adequate travel options," said APTA President William Millar.
Expansion in works
Local transit officials are trying to prepare. Public workshops around the Triangle explored a linked network of trains and expanded bus service.
"It makes a lot of sense," Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said. "Raleigh is becoming a lot more urban, and we're going to need to increase bus service."
Wake County commissioners are weighing a referendum next year on a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for transit improvements. Orange and Durham officials have said they may ask voters to consider the measure this fall.
Commuter trains, using existing Amtrak-freight tracks, could roll in as little as six years, according to Triangle Transit, the three-county agency shepherding the effort.
In May, Raleigh will debut a $28.6 million CAT operations center with a garage and maintenance area for 125 buses, and expansion room to accommodate up to 200.
The system operates 40 public transit routes with 84 vehicles.
In addition, the downtown R-line circulator offers free fares.
As wind ripped through Moore Square during an afternoon last week, Jesse Eaton rushed toward the bus to Chavis Heights. A school custodian, Eaton started riding after his car broke down.
"The way gas prices are, I'm not going to fix it," he said. "I just ride the bus all over."
Staff writers Andrew Kenney and Mark Schultz contributed to this report.
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