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The newbies are not hard to identify, Jeremy Casper reports.
They're the ones with the mystified look and the hail of anxious questions. "Is this the bus to Minneapolis? What time does it come back?" And, more often than not, they are folks he continues to see at the transit station in Shakopee the next week, and the next.
One by one, automobile-loving Scott County is starting to take the bus.
Five years after the county's first-ever bus station opened near Hwy. 169, BlueXpress out of Prior Lake and Shakopee is recording jumps in riders faster than any other bus service in the Twin Cities area.
The raw numbers can't compare with those of Dakota County, with its much more highly developed system. But riders and officials agree that the Scott County system already bulges at times, with people standing in the aisles.
And in the words of the county's deputy administrator, Lezlie Vermillion, "That's a looooong stand, all the way to downtown Minneapolis."
The key to the most recent jump in numbers seems to be rising gas prices, combined with enhancements to service: more trips at more times of day, including noontime rides gradually rolled out during 2011.
But the options for riders also are multiplying: There are a lot more smartphones, tablets, e-book readers and other time-filling electronic devices than there were a few years ago.
"A good amount of people are on their Kindles and cellphones," said Caplan, a Shakopee resident who takes the bus to his job at the University of Minnesota. "Others have laptops out. That could be having an impact. Myself, I like to hop on the phone and check Facebook, Twitter, read the news and have them do the driving, and not worry about traffic."
The system is also gradually upgrading away from city buses and toward cushier coaches.
"I actually feel spoiled," said Michael Moore of Shakopee, who gets dropped off a few steps away from his job at a downtown bank. "I have friends who take the city bus and have ridden with them to Target Field and I'm like, 'Ugh.' On ours, the seats kind of recline back. I just wish we had Wi-Fi."
That possibility was explored, said Prior Lake's Jane Kansier, "but it was really not cost-effective. It was very expensive to outfit buses and pay for service. And with all the smartphones and iPads" -- which can be connected to the digital world without needing a Wi-Fi signal -- "it wouldn't have had that many users. Riders told us there was not a lot of interest."
In fact, officials discovered that a lot of folks didn't want such a thing for fear of rides turning into just more time spent working on e-mail and the like. "That was kind of weird but true," Kansier said.
BlueXpress turned out to have been launched at the perfect moment. It was mid-2007, just ahead of the epic rise in gas prices in 2008 -- the jump that fueled sales of scooters and micro-compact cars as well.
From a slow beginning at the 5,000 to 9,000 level, monthly ridership rose to more than 13,000 that summer, a level it would not reach again for years -- partly because the economy soured as well.
Last year, however, despite minimal population growth in the meantime, ridership reached the 13,000 level again and then soared past it. The 2011 peak was close to 15,500.
Year over year, for the first six months of 2011 versus the same period in 2010, BlueXpress saw a jump of 17 percent, three percentage points higher than the next biggest rise experienced by suburban operators, that of Plymouth's system.
Most of the suburban bus systems saw far smaller gains than that in percentage terms, though their raw numbers were bigger. (Gigantic Minnesota Valley Transit, known as MVTA, had a year-over-year increase that was about the same size as BlueXpress's entire ridership.)
Scott County still lands on the bottom among metro counties for public transportation use by commuters, though the figure is about the same as other affluent counties such as Carver and Washington.
Scott's public transport percentage today is similar to that of Carver County, even though Carver has a much more impressive group of stations, with amenities such as indoor TV viewing while you wait, not just glorified shelters.
Scott, though, is gradually gearing up: Eagle Creek, officially a "station" though it's really an enhanced park-and-ride, is due to open in July in Prior Lake, adding convenience for riders coming in from the south. The area looks almost done and ready to be used already, but striping of pavement and the like will need to await warmer weather.
Not just Scott
To be sure, other express services drawing riders from the south suburbs also are registering bumps.
Metro Transit reports that use of its new park-and-ride in Lakeville in 2011 rose to a weekday average of 730, or 45 percent higher than 2010, using over-the-road coaches.
That service, launched in September 2009, got faster in October 2011 when the state finished a MnPASS lane in Burnsville that's also for buses. On-time performance rose to 99 percent on a 35-minute trip to downtown Minneapolis, an agency spokesman said.
MVTA lost riders when Metro Transit invaded its old territory by landing in Lakeville, drawing riders who used to head to Apple Valley or Burnsville. Even so, 2011 numbers added up to its second-highest total ever, reaching 2,588,183, up 6.2 percent from 2010. The 2008 high was 2,638,883.
A next big step for everyone, Vermillion said, is to work with the Metropolitan Council to configure services that could intersect with rapid east-west busways planned for American Boulevard in Bloomington, to serve the Interstate 494 corridor, a big destination for commuters from south of the river.
But already, she said, the buses are making a difference for everyone, including motorists.
"On I-35W, express transit in peak hours probably reduces the need for an entire lane of traffic," she said, an expensive thing to add. "We're not at that point on 169 yet, but that's pretty important to the region to have what we have on I-35."
Even though BlueXpress buses often are packed, Kansier said, officials are being cautious about adding new service. The truth is, packed buses mean fewer subsidies than half-empty ones, even if that means the agency has to put up nagging notices asking folks not to throw their belongings on an empty seat that someone else is going to need.
"We have as many buses as we can get right now," she said. "And we need operating dollars, so we are being cautious. We expect to get three more buses next year and can offer more peak-hour times. We want to be full, but not standing full."
For the riders, meanwhile, taking the bus can amount to a pay increase, especially with employee discounts. Asked what parking downtown costs these days, Moore put it at between $140 and $180 a month, then called out, "Hey, Scott, how much you pay for parking? What's that? $160 a month?"
With a monthly pass, Moore pays $35 to $40 to ride the bus.
"A lot cheaper. And I don't pay for gas. I used to go through a tank a week. Now it's two weeks without filling up."
David Peterson • 952-746-3285