Plans for buses on Cedar Avenue include amenities like bike racks and superpadded seats. Perks like Wi-Fi and electrical outlets also are being considered.
Ride a bicycle to a bus station along Cedar Avenue and then roll it aboard.
Interior bicycle racks -- similar to those found on light rail -- are among the extra amenities that are being planned for the new buses that will run along the rapid busway corridor come November.
Cedar Avenue, which will be known as the Red Line, is the metro area's first rapid busway, and national experts have said that the success of such "bus rapid transit" systems hinges on providing service that riders more often associate with modern, convenient, light-rail transit.
So planners and Dakota County officials are poring over every detail of the buses, from seat fabric to wireless Internet access, trying to assemble an attractive bus that convinces riders it's at least as comfortable as, and perhaps even offers more than, a train.
"We have that opportunity to kind of test some of that stuff out," said Sam O'Connell, a transit specialist with Dakota County. "That's the benefit of going first."
The County Board on Tuesday is expected to approve a funding transfer that will allow Minnesota Valley Transit Authority to complete the purchase of seven buses, which cost $450,000 to $550,000 each.
But last week's discussion during a more than two-hour meeting was all about amenities.
Take cup holders, for example.
The county commissioners spent nearly half an hour debating their necessity and design. Should every seat have one? Would they be mounted on the back of the next seat or on the interior wall of the bus? Or would they just turn into trash receptacles if people leave their empty cups behind?
"I don't want them half busted off," Commissioner Joe Harris said, wondering about vandals and durability.
Ultimately, the board asked staffers to see how much it would cost to add a few wall-mounted cup holders and report back.
Other decisions were easier.
The bus will have a sleek, high-profile rooftop design that mimics the tops of light-rail trains instead of the boxy top of regular buses. There will be a rear window and a clear roof hatch to let in more light.
A more open interior layout with some seats facing the front and some facing the center aisle will offer seating for about 30 people (depending on the bike rack placement), with some that flip up to accommodate riders who use wheelchairs. All the seats will come with maximum padding and a neck extension, at a cost of about $800 per bus, playing to many suburban riders' aversions to hard plastic bus seats.
"It will be more padding than that provided for LRT seats right now," O'Connell said.
There will also be handrails and hanging straps for people who stand during the bus ride.
But some options and amenities initially favored by commissioners didn't make the cut.
The buses won't be hybrids, for one. The extra cost -- about $180,000 per vehicle -- wasn't likely to be recouped on a route that includes more highway driving than the frequent stop-and-go motion that maximizes hybrid technology.
Any hope of disguising the bus wheels with panels known as fender skirts also fell by the wayside because they would prohibit level boarding, with the bus pulled up flush with the curb, and they could invalidate the manufacturer's warranty.
"I don't want to invalidate a warranty," County Board Chairwoman Nancy Schouweiler said. "It's an aesthetic that frankly is not as pleasing as I thought they would be, either."
Paying for a trip on the busway also will be slightly different than the routine at light-rail stops. On Cedar Avenue, riders will be able to pay on the bus with cash or with a Go-To card or by ticket purchased at the Apple Valley Transit Station, the only spot on the corridor that will have ticket vending machines like light rail.
But the county commissioners are keen on loading the buses with other technology, possibly including a few electrical outlets where people could charge phones, tablets and laptops, and with wireless Internet access, which isn't offered on light rail.
"So it's not available on LRT or Northstar? Maybe they made a mistake," Schouweiler said, urging the Internet service upgrade if further analysis proves it's not too expensive. "We're trying to meet the [needs of] the customer of the future."
Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286