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SouthWest Transit bus station

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

The Drive: SouthWest Transit adds bikes, local routes

  • Article by: Tim Harlow
  • Star Tribune
  • June 8, 2014 - 9:47 PM

Ridership on SouthWest Transit buses is up 11 percent from January to June, and the award-winning transit agency wants to keep the streak going.

With the prospect of having to compete with light-rail trains if and when they arrive in Eden Prairie, SouthWest is already retooling itself to remain a viable form of transportation, both now and in the future.

In February, SouthWest launched express service from Eden Prairie to Target’s Brooklyn Park headquarters, and this spring it debuted a new bike-sharing program that allows riders to leave their cars at home and pedal to and from its transit stations. Unlike Nice Ride Minnesota, users get to keep the bikes for the entire summer season, not just 60 minutes at a time. Later in the month the transit agency’s first double-decker bus will hit the streets, and come fall it will offer express service to both Vikings and University of Minnesota football games. Its current fleet of motor coaches will be updated with new seats, higher quality flooring and better lighting.

That’s just the start. Bigger things coming down the pike revolve around the proposed Southwest light-rail line from Minneapolis to the southwest suburbs.

Known mostly for its weekday express service to downtown Minneapolis and the U, SouthWest is planning more local routes to connect rail riders with jobs. That includes developing a high-frequency circular service to take passengers from the rail stop planned at the current site of SouthWest’s headquarters on Technology Drive to the “Golden Triangle,” a business park bounded by Interstate 494 and Hwys. 5/212 and 169 where an estimated 40,000 people work. It also is seeking to take over Eden Prairie’s current Dial-a-Ride service, a curb-to-curb service for the general public currently provided by Transit Link through Met Council. SouthWest will go before the Met Council this week to make its case for taking over that service.

“This commission wants to remain relevant in terms of bus operations out of Eden Prairie,” said SouthWest CEO Len Simich. “With rail coming in … you have to have the local service connectivity. The rail can’t touch all the jobs out here. We need to develop that local network or rail won’t be that successful. We want to be that provider.”

Connectivity central to growth

Simich said SouthWest hopes to develop routes to connect residents of Chaska and Chanhassen with the train, and to take train riders to jobs that are well off the rail line. Those buses also would serve reverse commuters who come from the city to Eden Prairie by express bus or train.

Express bus service will always be SouthWest’s bread-and-butter, but the agency, which has won both state and national awards for being progressive, will keep adapting. Simich knows that only a certain percentage of those living in the communities SouthWest serves has a need for the bus, so the agency is continually looking for ways to provide relevant services. “With all the light-rail transit talk, people forget we are here doing a good job,” said Pat Brink, SouthWest’s marketing manager. “We keep adding things. We are here to stay.”

Park-and-ride lots were nearly full last week, and even with any changes, they probably will stay that way.

© 2014 Star Tribune