Two years after state investigators singled out the transit services in Prior Lake and Shakopee as some of the most highly subsidized in the metro area, officials are exploring whether to surrender full control of Scott County buses.

Some worry about the rami­fications of merging with the much bigger Minnesota Valley Transit Authority — an experience some have had before and didn’t like. This time around, however, they say, Scott County is a bigger entity with more clout.

“The answer I’m hearing is, the combination of Prior Lake, Shakopee, Savage, Scott County in general, should mean a strong contingent from the county on the MVTA board,” said Rick Keeney, a Prior Lake City Council member.

Savage is already in the MVTA, which covers much of Dakota County from Rosemount west.

In Shakopee, a resolution to explore merger talks was folded into a bunch of minor items on the consent agenda and passed over in a moment or two.

In Prior Lake, however, there’s more visible anxiety.

Merging with a larger provider “would result in a loss of local identity and local autonomy in transit operations,” Assistant City Manager Jane Kansier warned council members in a briefing document.

In addition to a $113,000 hit to the budget, she said, “We will not have unilateral control of the transit system. If we want to provide a shuttle for Lakefront Days, for example, we would have to do so at our own cost or convince MVTA that this is beneficial. Our transit service could also be cut or fail to grow because the resources are required in other areas.”

But she and others also are warning that they are headed for trouble the way things are now, even though ridership in recent years has been going gangbusters.

Wrote Kansier: “Our own projections show that if we continue using the same funding sources and projected ridership increases, we will run out of money in approximately five years. At that time, we will have to decide if we want to curtail system growth or utilize local revenues to support transit.”

It’s not as if that shuttle for Lakefront Days is cost-free right now.

A 2011 legislative auditor’s inquiry into the metro area’s patchwork system of transit operations found that “SouthWest Transit, Shakopee Transit and Prior Lake Transit had higher costs per hour and mile and higher subsidies per passenger and mile than other providers in the region in 2009,” the year investigators studied.

If some of SouthWest Transit’s costs are due to longer travel times, the report said, the problem in Scott County had a lot to do with minuscule size. “Shakopee Transit and Prior Lake Transit each had only one shared express bus route and few local routes, so the overhead costs for each provider were allocated onto a small number of routes.”

A table comparing performance measures placed the Prior Lake subsidy per passenger for express buses at well over twice the metro-wide average: $7.77 vs. $2.89. It was the highest of any transit provider.

Shakopee, meanwhile, had the distinction of the highest subsidy per mile, $8.91, vs. a regional average of $4.43.

That was at a much earlier stage in the development of transit in Scott County, but the sting of being singled out for raised eyebrows in a report that otherwise praised suburban transit is not quickly forgotten.

“The efficiency of a transit service is often measured by subsidy per passenger,” Kansier told council members. “While this is not the only measure or even the best measure of efficiency, this is the metric used by the Metropolitan Council. According to the 2011 Route Subsidy Analysis prepared by the Metropolitan Council, the subsidy per passenger for BlueXpress is $7.29. This is considered within the targeted threshold for express service.”

But fare recovery is hampered by rules requiring the same fares for longer trips, she said, and there is one longer-haul provider costing more. “The closest route comparison to BlueXpress is the Rush Line, which runs from Forest Lake to downtown Minneapolis and which is operated by the Metropolitan Council. The subsidy per passenger for this service is $9.43.”

Met Council spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge said the agency understands that comparing transit performance is tricky, and there’s no such thing as a perfect performance measure.

“BlueXpress trips are among the longest in the region,” she added, and “route distance is one of a number of factors that influence subsidy levels. The BlueXpress meets regional performance requirements and Shakopee and Prior Lake have worked hard to make the service productive and successful.”

Council staff have examined 2011 data for the longest express routes, she said, and “it does not appear that long-distance commutes necessarily always have a high subsidy. In fact, routes that are further out, but serve large park-and-rides, tend to be efficient because they fill up the buses.”

As for the Rush Line comparison, she said:

“Route 285, from Forest Lake to downtown St. Paul, had a 2011 subsidy of $9.43. In 2011, that was not a Met Council-funded route, but rather planned and funded by the Rush Line Corridor. Route 288, from Forest Lake to downtown Minneapolis, had a 2011 subsidy of $2.63. That is the comparable route to the Prior Lake service.”

Prior Lake taxpayers paid into metro transit starting at least by 1975, city officials recall, but in the early years got just one daily express bus to downtown Minneapolis.

In 1984, the Minnesota Legislature allowed suburbs to opt out and form their own transit systems, and after that the city joined MVTA. But Prior Lake was still a small fish — and still felt neglected. In 2001, the city opted out of the opt-out and created Laker Lines.

The decision so far on MVTA is just to pursue options and conditions, Keeney stressed.

“We just decided to move forward in exploring it — not by official action, but informal direction to staff. We understand there’s some overhead here, and we just have questions and concerns, including how to assure our service levels, the logistics of bus ownership, of financial reserves, and mainly how to assure ourselves of an appropriate say in what happens.”