Last Friday, Sarah Ahiers and her siblings arrived at Calvary Church in White Bear Township just minutes after the State Fair park-and-ride lot opened — and then ended up waiting an hour for a spot on a bus.
By Monday, "we learned our lesson," Ahiers said. This time the group arrived at the lot 15 minutes early and made it onto the first round of buses.
Each year, the Great Minnesota Get-Together brings with it perennial challenges involving traffic, parking and long lines. While the State Fair doesn't yet have data on this year's park-and-ride service, "anecdotally, it feels like we've bounced back to pre-pandemic demand," said Lara Hughes, the fair's marketing and communications manager.
With attendance currently on pace to exceed last year's fair — which saw the fifth-largest crowds in its history — officials are encouraging fairgoers to plan ahead and have a Plan B.
That worked Tuesday morning for Matt Robeck and his family, who drove from St. Michael to the park-and-ride lot at the Minnesota Office Plaza lot in Roseville, where about 200 people were waiting for a bus. The family drove another five minutes to Roseville's Calvary Church, parked on a nearby street and caught a bus right away.
"It all went pretty smoothly," Robeck said. "This is a lot better than trying to park right by the fair."
The State Fair, which contracts with buses and drivers to provide free rides from nearby locations, updates its website throughout the day to show which onsite parking and park-and-ride lots are full. One park-and-ride lot was added to the roster this year, bringing the total to 31, the same number of spots the park-and-rides served in 2019.
Fair officials emphasized that many other transportation options exist. Residents living a bit farther out in the metro may pay a small fee to ride express buses offered by Metro Transit, SouthWest Transit and Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA).
Spokesman Richard Crawford said that if the weather holds up, MVTA will likely beat its record of 97,000 rides set in 2019.
During the first four days of the fair, SouthWest Transit saw ridership increase nearly 20% compared with last year, CEO Erik Hansen said. The agency did not provide express buses Monday and Tuesday, due to lower demand since the pandemic. But Hansen noted that SouthWest added back Wednesday express service.
Anticipating similar demand, Metro Transit resumed its express bus stop in Blaine for the first time since 2017.
"Transit's been hit hard by the last few years," Hansen said. "It's really nice to see people coming back and enjoying the fair. We think that's a good sign for things to come."
According to preliminary data from Metro Transit, more than 107,000 people took express buses from its four suburban park-and-ride lots during the first five days of the fair. At 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, parked cars lined a mile-long service road stretching from the agency's Minnetonka ramp at County Road 73 to Ridgedale Mall.
Even so, Metro Transit's fair footprint is reduced from the 10 express sites it served across the metro area in 2019. A spokesperson said the agency scaled back sites in 2021 due to unknown demand and a shortage of drivers.
"Based on current staffing levels, we are providing the maximum amount of service we can reliably provide," said Laura Baenen, senior communications specialist for Metro Transit. Agency officials have said they hope to add another lot next year if resources allow it.
Other transportation options include onsite or private parking — though spots are often claimed early — along with ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft; biking; or regular public transportation routes.
Metro Transit boosts its number of buses during fair season. A few regular fairgoers who gathered Tuesday morning to catch the A Line rapid bus transit at Rosedale Center deemed the nearly empty parking lot one of their best insider tips.
Staff writer Tim Harlow contributed to this story.