The bus, crawling on the shoulder of Hwy. 169, trudged through morning traffic. Its only occupant, the driver, was met at each stop with a familiar sight — nobody.
The new Route 494 — which began service Jan. 19 between Maple Grove and Shakopee in the west metro suburbs — was rolling.
It’s billed as the first express suburb-to-suburb route in the Twin Cities area, running weekday mornings and afternoons down the Interstate 494 and Hwy. 169 corridors through Plymouth and Eden Prairie, to carry suburbanites to their suburban jobs.
Transit officials say the idea of the new route has been met with enthusiasm. But despite fanfare and $2 million in state funding, the new service has yet to win many loyal customers through the first few weeks of service. Seats have largely gone unfilled.
“It’s starting to pick up a little bit,” 494 bus driver Matt Baker said.
Baker, who started driving the bus when the route began Jan. 19, said he had picked up nine passengers — total — in the route’s first three weeks. Another driver picked up 24 passengers over that span, and one driver — who said he now has two daily regulars — has had about 10 other passengers.
“We’re not focusing now on bodies on the bus,” Minnesota Valley Transit Authority spokeswoman Robin Selvig said. “We’re focusing on getting the word out.”
Bus lines often take 18 months to build ridership, Selvig said. The line was created as a two-year demonstration project by Maple Grove Transit, the MVTA, Plymouth Metrolink and SouthWest Transit, the west and southwest metro transit services.
With only two years before funding runs dry, officials are working to persuade suburbanites to join bus drivers on the route soon.
Legislators, mayors and city council members staged a ribbon-cutting, which took place 17 days after the route began, to better market the new line, Selvig said.
Selvig said she has attended commuter fairs and the transit groups have advertised for the new route in the hope that employees at companies like Great River Energy in Maple Grove; Mosaic and TCF Bank in Plymouth; and Optum and UnitedHealth Group in Eden Prairie, hop on the bus.
But now, with low gas prices and frigid weather testing rider interest in public transportation, the route has rarely been ridden.
The buses make 20 peak-time trips a day, at about 30-minute intervals, between Plymouth’s Station 73 Park and Ride and the Marschall Road Transit Station in Shakopee. At Station 73, a waiting 494 bus connects to Maple Grove. Rides cost $2.25.
Officials at the Maple Grove ribbon-cutting said they hope the trial period will become permanent.
“I think it’ll work,” state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said after the ceremony. “I’ve heard plenty of citizen, and bipartisan, support.”
Jeffry Wosje, Suburban Transit Authority board chairman and a Plymouth City Council member, said he thinks the route will gain more passengers in the spring.
With spring comes road construction, highway closings and the troublesome traffic that comes with them, he said, adding that warm weather would help as well.
“That’s when people start thinking about alternatives,” he said.
But retired Metro Transit planner and manager Aaron Isaacs said he saw somewhat similar suburban routes fail — or have services rolled back — over his 33 years at Metro Transit. He hopes the route will find ridership, but doubts that it will, he said.
“It has the deck stacked against it,” he said.
The problem is the distance between transit hubs and workplaces with the lure of free parking, he said.
Spacious suburbs also lack a downtown-like employer concentration, and streets without sidewalks play against the route, he said, adding that 30-minute bus arrival intervals don’t help either.
Transit officials are working to address those difficulties. There are Dial-A-Ride services at several 494 bus stops. Parking is free at nearby park-and-ride areas, and the bus makes a loop through the large UnitedHealthcare and Optum campus in Eden Prairie.
The STA also plans to go back to the Legislature to request additional funding to shave bus intervals to shorter than 30 minutes, Wosje said, adding that he hopes to get the time between buses down to 15 minutes or less.
The four transit services and the STA will also reassess the new line every six months to see how to best tweak the route, Wosje and Selvig said.
Until then, the transit groups plan to build ridership by advertising the route.
And for the lonely 494 bus drivers, a drive with passengers would lighten the job, they said.
“I don’t mind it,” driver Taylor Werness said of driving alone. “But it does get old.”
Barry Lytton is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.