The Drive: Express buses might be fair's best deal

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 18, 2014 - 7:33 AM
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Along with the Metro Transit express bus service, both the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, shown above, and SouthWest Transit have trips headed to the State Fair. New this year is BlueXpress service.

The Great Minnesota Get-Together begins Thursday, and the way Bruce Howard sees it, taking the bus is a good deal.

Howard is the director of customer services and marketing for Metro Transit so, naturally, he’s a tad biased. But taking the bus really is one of those State Fair deals you can’t pass up. A round-trip ride from one of 20 suburban park-and-ride locations is only $5, compared with the $13 it will cost you to park your car on site. (Those savings will at least buy some cheese curds.) And this year you’ll get dropped off at the fair’s newest attraction, the $15 million West End Market and new transit hub where Heritage Square used to stand.

“We think that is the best deal going,” he said at a recent Met Council meeting.

Last year the agency provided 444,295 rides to and from the fair and it’s hoping to boost that number by 3 percent in 2014. To that end, Metro Transit has created a series of clever advertisements featuring some of the fair’s most iconic images, including its famous ‘T’ logo sheared into a sheep, on a corn dog and even a butter sculpture reminiscent of Princess Kay of the Milky Way. One features a boy on the Giant Slide with the words “Park. Ride. Ride some more.”

Metro Transit will spend more than 3,100 hours supporting regular-route and express bus service during the fair. That's on top of the hours spent creating the ads that primarily appear on its buses and online, but also on 30,000 direct mailings and brochures to promote local Route 960 from downtown Minneapolis to the fair and encourage people to use the park-and-ride lot at the Fridley Northstar station.

The ads also bring attention to new services, such as the light-rail Green Line. Fairgoers can ride the train to the Snelling Avenue Station, then hop on Route 84, which stops at the fair.

“We are promoting the fair this year because of the new transit hub that will make operations easier than in the past,” said transit spokesman Drew Kerr. “And there is a whole new way to get there with the Green Line.”

Transit choices

While Metro Transit is clearly the largest player in the game, other transit companies have taken a more low-profile approach to promoting their State Fair service. Both the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority and SouthWest Transit have placed ads in community newspapers, put up posters at community events and posted information on their websites. Their best tool is word of mouth, said Linda Spevacek, a spokeswoman for SouthWest, which provided 72,000 State Fair rides last year.

“It’s such a PR piece for us. We really don’t have to do a lot, especially when [the service is] good.”

BlueXpress, which enters the market for the first time, hopes to get a plug from this week’s grand opening of a new park and ride off Marschall Road and Hwy. 169 in Shakopee. The agency will offer service on Saturdays, Sundays and Labor Day.

Last year more than 745,000 people — or nearly half of those who attended the 2013 fair — arrived via an express bus or on free buses that shuttle guests from 33 fair-run park and ride lots.

“It’s much less expensive and it takes the hassle out of the trip getting here,” said Brienna Schuette, the fair’s marketing coordinator. With the new transit hub, “we won’t be mixing people, cars and livestock on Como Avenue.”

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