Tim Harlow
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Maple Grove Transit riders who work in the east end of downtown Minneapolis will have a much shorter walk to their offices when a new express route debuts in August.

Route 784 will serve large employment hubs such as Wells Fargo, Thrivent Financial, Hennepin County Medical Center, U.S. Bank Stadium, and the Mill District starting Aug. 22.

Buses will make six trips from the Maple Grove Transit Station to downtown in the mornings traveling along 4th Street to Portland Avenue, then scooting over to 7th Street and ending at 2nd Avenue S. In the evening, six outbound trips will begin at 8th Street and 2nd Avenue S., follow 8th to Park Avenue, then go left on Park to 3rd Street, then left on 3rd to Interstate 94.

"We are excited to serve a new part of downtown," said Transit Administrator Mike Opatz. "It will serve quite a few people."

Opatz said riders had been requesting service to the Downtown East area since Wells Fargo relocated its headquarters from the downtown core several years ago. The nearest express buses ran on Marquette Avenue, leaving riders with a six- to eight-block walk to get to their jobs.

The transit agency had wanted to extend service to that part of downtown, but it didn't have enough drivers, buses or budget to expand its footprint, Opatz said.

The COVID-19 downturn in ridership changed that.

Maple Grove Transit suspended five of its downtown express routes in 2020. That allowed the agency serving the northwestern Hennepin County suburb to beef up service on its primary express Route 781, originating at the Maple Grove Transit Center, and free up resources to start the new Route 784, Opatz said.

The new route will operate about every 30 minutes during peak periods, according to the proposed schedule.

Ridership across the system still is down 50% from pre-pandemic levels when the agency provided about 3,100 rides a day on its five express routes. But numbers are "slowly increasing" as full- or part-time workers return to the office, Opatz said.

"We are not putting out buses and running them empty," he said.

Starting June 13, Maple Grove Transit will reinstate express service from the Parkway Station on Maple Grove Parkway, one of the routes cut because of the pandemic. Service to the University of Minnesota also will continue during the school year, Opatz said

Opatz said working out the new service plan has been a bit of a chess game. Maple Grove Transit contracts with Metro Transit for its drivers, but Metro Transit is facing a driver shortage and cannot provide any additional drivers. To accommodate the new Route 784 and resume Parkway service without adding drivers, there will be three fewer trips on the 781 daily, Opatz said. But there still will be enough 781 service to meet demand.

"Mobility patterns are changing," Opatz said. "We have to roll with them."