See more of the story

Metro Transit is making a ridership comeback.

For the past two years, the agency cut bus service as it grappled with a driver shortage and a steep drop in ridership that coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

All that is changing.

Starting June 17, buses on several core Twin Cities area routes will run more frequently. Weekday express service from Woodbury to downtown Minneapolis will be restored. And the segment of Route 645 serving Wayzata and Mound, axed in 2022, will be reinstated.

All told, Metro Transit will increase bus service by 2%, marking the second straight quarter the agency has not had to make cuts.

"We are on the upswing," said Adam Harrington, Metro Transit's director of Service Development.

Several factors are driving the turnaround and leading to beefed-up service. Ridership has ticked up, the agency has more drivers and the state Legislature approved a 0.75% metrowide sales tax increase dedicated to transit, which will provide Metro Transit with more money and a consistent revenue stream.

To attract drivers, Metro Transit this year raised the starting wage from about $21 per hour to just over $26. The agency also upped bonuses for employees who refer friends and family members from $600 to $3,000 to $5,000. Metro Transit also holds paid study sessions for driver candidates to help them pass required testing, and the agency started a mentor program to pair new drivers with veteran employees. Some minor requirements, such as drivers having to hold a high school diploma or equivalent, have been dropped.

The effort is working, said Brian Funk, Metro Transit's deputy general manager and chief operating officer. The agency needs 1,250 full- and part-time drivers to be fully staffed. Metro Transit has hired 170 so far this year — a net increase of 70 when retirements and attrition are factored in — bringing the roster to about 1,100.

The agency is getting eight applications a day, Funk said.

"The gap is closing," he said. "We will get there by the end of the year."

The agency also is seeing an increase in applications for light-rail train operators. Three operators graduated from training last week and 10 more are in class now, Funk said.

With more drivers behind the wheel, Harrington said Metro Transit is able to deploy more buses and run them more frequently. Buses on the Orange Line, the rapid line running on I-35W from Minneapolis to Burnsville, will run every 15 minutes midday on weekdays. The 94 express route between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul will run every 20 minutes during rush hours and every 30 minutes midday.

About 17 routes will run more often, including the 227 through Arden Hills, Shoreview and Roseville, which will run hourly instead of every two hours.

The increased frequency comes as ridership has reached 55% of pre-pandemic levels. Some routes, such as the D Line — the rapid bus line that largely replaced Route 5 from Mall of America to Brooklyn Center — has returned to near-2019 levels with 12,000 rides a day.

While no new routes will be added in June, the legislative windfall could allow more service to be restored by the end of the year, Funk said.

That might even include additional trips on the Northstar commuter rail from downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake. Metro Transit slimmed service on the 41-mile line to two weekday trips in each direction and no special-event trains after Anoka County and the agency could not agree on how much the county should pay. The county recently approved $1.95 million to cover its share of 2023 operating expenses, but Metro Transit said the county owes more.

When the new sales taxes take effect in October, neither Hennepin nor Anoka counties will be responsible for contributing to cover Northstar expenses.

Metro Transit cut 6% of its service last December, which was "unacceptable," Harrington said. With so much to restore, "it will take some time."