Big transit dreams are shifting into gear in the south metro area, with new stations opening up and construction set to start later this year on Cedar Avenue to make way for bus rapid transit.

Yet the area's most popular bus service, the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA), saw its ridership drop 8 percent to 2.4 million rides in 2009.

It's only the second time since MVTA's founding in 1991 that ridership has dropped. Last time, in 2002, the decline paralleled a cut in service.

This time, MVTA officials blame lower gas prices -- making it more affordable for people to drive -- and the economy. There's also a new Metro Transit service on Interstate 35 competing with MVTA, providing 429 express bus rides per day between Lakeville and Minneapolis.

Dakota County Commissioner Will Branning, chairman of the MVTA board, said the economy is the biggest culprit because job losses have taken many commuters off the roads altogether. And that won't change until the jobs come back.

"If the job market improves, ridership will drastically improve," Branning said.

The drop in south metro transit ridership echoed one that took place all across the Twin Cities, according to preliminary estimates.

After hitting nearly 95 million in 2008, including a 27-year high for Metro Transit, the region's main bus system, ridership throughout the various regional transit systems is expected to sink below 90 million when the final numbers are in, according to figures released as part of Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell's "State of the Region" address last week.

Both drops are being seen as the result of lost jobs in the metro area, and in particular lost jobs within the inner core -- central cities and older, inner-ring suburbs such as Bloomington.

Twin Cities area employment dropped by about 83,000 from 2007 to 2009, according to Libby Starling, research manager for the Metropolitan Council, with the vast majority of those losses -- about 76,000 -- occurring from 2008 to 2009.

From 2000 to 2009, Starling recently told a Met Council committee, Minneapolis-St. Paul ranked 19th out of the top 25 metro areas in its changing job picture, "meaning one of the biggest losses in jobs. About half the metros saw an increase in jobs during that time."

Popularity of 'flex routes'

While job losses hurt commuter bus ridership -- the bulk of MVTA's business -- other types of south metro bus routes saw increases. More riders boarded buses bound for the University of Minnesota, and local "flex routes" serving Apple Valley, Rosemount, Burnsville and Savage also saw an increase.

"There seems to be interest in having that little bit of flexibility to be able to have a bus get closer to where you live," said Robin Selvig, customer service manager for MVTA. "They may take the bus to Cub Foods or the pharmacy, or they may take it to the transit station to get on a bus to go somewhere else."

That interest bodes well for the bus rapid transit destined for Cedar Avenue in 2012, Branning said. That service, meant to mimic a light-rail train by running buses along the corridor in a designated shoulder lane, will include multiple local stops along Cedar through Lakeville, Apple Valley and Eagan.

About one-third of MVTA's operating budget comes from fares, and Selvig said the ridership decline isn't expected to have much impact on the agency's $17.5 million operating budget. But MVTA, which draws funding from the state's motor vehicle sales tax and other sources, is already operating on a shoestring after spending down reserves and might cut some services later this year.

Still, Selvig said, "We're very hopeful."

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056 David Peterson • 952-882-9023