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For just 50 cents, Metro Transit riders can hop a bus or train and take trips within downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul.

Last year, Metro Transit provided more than 159,000 of the short jaunts, which the transit agency bills as “inexpensive travel without the footwork.”

But reader Katie Fitzpatrick asked why Metro Transit has the 50-cent fare for downtown riders, yet all other riders pay $2 to use transit within their neighborhoods?

Metro Transit offers the reduced Downtown Zone fare for riders who, for example, might park on the east end of downtown Minneapolis and need transportation to Target Field on the west end. The same is true for those who may park in the Ramps A, B or C on the west end and need a ride to Orchestra Hall. In St. Paul, for example, the 50-cent fare would allow those who drive and park downtown to take transit to the State Capitol or a favorite dining spot.

It’s true that a lot of Metro Transit riders go only short distances. In 2018, the average trip on local buses was 3.36 miles. The average was 4.64 miles on limited stop, express and other Metro Transit services, according to data the agency submitted to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database.

So, many trips outside the downtowns are about the same distance as or just slightly longer than those in the downtown area.

The Downtown Zone fares are designed for 5- to 10-minute, one-way trips that begin and end in downtown and don’t allow a transfer, said Drew Kerr, a Metro Transit spokesman. Meanwhile, customers who pay regular fares are allowed unlimited rides and transfers within a 2 ½-hour period.

In the 1970s, when fares were cheaper, Metro Transit established a “Dime Zone” in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. At the time, both cities had buses that circulated exclusively within the downtown areas. That is no longer the case, but the downtown zones remain. In Minneapolis, the zone is roughly bound by the Mississippi River on the north, Target Field on the west, the Minneapolis Convention Center and Loring Park on the south and U.S. Bank Stadium on the east.

In St. Paul, the downtown zone is roughly bound by the State Capitol area on the north, Lafayette Avenue and Hwy. 52 on the east, the Mississippi River on the south and the Cathedral of St. Paul on the west.

Kerr said Metro Transit once tried distance-based fares with riders paying a base fare plus a surcharge the farther they went.

“Operators had a hard time enforcing [it], so there was an effort to simplify,” Kerr said.

Outside the downtown zones, local bus fare is $2, rising to $2.50 during weekday rush hours. Express fares are $2.50 or $3.25 during rush hours.

More fare questions

Drive reader Frank Zaragoza, 91, wanted to know if he could get free rides on Metro Transit since he is a veteran and a senior citizen.

That is not enough to get free rides on Twin Cities public transportation, but veterans with disabilities can ride without paying. They must show the driver their ID card that has the words “Service Connected” or the letters “SC” to get free rides, Kerr said.

All seniors can ride buses for $1 during nonpeak hours. Those with a State ID with an “A” or “L” endorsement, Limited Mobility ID card or a Metro Mobility ID card can ride regular route or express buses for $1 anytime.

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.