LEWISTON – High gas prices are getting Western Mainers to do something once nearly unheard of: ditch their cars and take the bus.

The number of bus riders between Sunday River and Bethel jumped 35 percent in the last year. Riders between Lewiston and Auburn increased 15 percent.

And Vermont Transit, a subsidiary of Greyhound Lines, has seen its Lewiston ridership balloon 20 to 30 percent in the past year. Many people are traveling to Portland, Boston and New York.

“I think there’s a consciousness out there: Don’t take the car if you don’t have to,” said Chris Andreasson, general manager for the national Vermont Transit.

Vermont Transit’s move from outer Lisbon Street to downtown Oak Street last May helped bring in some riders, Andreasson said. The new station is more centrally located and near covered parking.

But Andreasson believes gas prices – near $3 a gallon – are pushing most of the new people to Greyhound. Some are families that ditch their cars for a trip into Boston. Others are business travelers who don’t want to drive, but need a cheaper-than-airfare way to New York or Boston once in a while, he said.

Five buses run north and five run south every day from Lewiston, seven days a week. A round-trip Lewiston-to-Boston ticket hovers around $50. Round-trip Lewiston-to-New York costs a little over $100.

Western Maine Transportation Services also reports more riders as gas prices have risen. It runs Lewiston-Auburn’s City Link buses and the Green Bus line, which offers service for the general public throughout Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties.

Depending on the route, ridership is up as little as a couple of people (Farmington to Lewiston) or as much as 35 percent (the Sunday River-Bethel run). And if people aren’t riding the bus, it seems like they’re calling about it. Inquiries have jumped in the past year.

“It’s going up and up and up and up,” said spokesman Glenn Gordon.

Western Maine Transportation Services will turn its three-day-a-week run between Farmington and Wilton into a five-day-a-week run starting June 19. Officials are going to watch ridership to see if more buses are needed in the tri-county area.

Fares start at $1. Some passengers ride free.

With gas so high it’s a price that’s hard to beat.

“There’s a lot of potential growth now in public transportation,” Gordon said.

Concord Trailways, which shares a Portland terminal with the Downeaster Amtrak train, has also seen a boom in riders. It expects to get 400,000 passengers this year, a 54 percent increase since 2003, according to the Associated Press.

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