Transit officials are banking on expensive infrastructure changes to the Red Line to increase ridership and reduce ride time.

But while those improvements at the Cedar Grove Station and Mall of America are designed and built over the next two years, they are experimenting with new hours to get more people to use the state’s first rapid busway.

The route runs on Hwy. 77 from Apple Valley to the Mall of America. It has struggled with lower-than-anticipated ridership.

In August, the Red Line will begin running very early — it will take off from the Apple Valley Transit Station at 3:45 a.m. — to accommodate people who work the morning shift at the airport, said Adam Harrington, Metro Transit’s director of service development.

“We know that a number of people live south of the river and we’re hoping that will be an attractive option,” he said.

There will be fewer trips after 6 p.m. as a result of the schedule change, Harrington said.

Jen Lehmann, planning manager at Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA), told the Dakota County Board last week that MVTA will try to maintain a standard schedule as much as possible.

“We don’t want to start moving trips around and changing the schedule too much,” she said, because they want the bus rapid transit service to be easily understandable.

The rapid bus line was designed to operate with the reliability of light rail and have stops on the roadway. When it debuted two years ago, “there was a glaring issue,” said Pat Jones, Metro Transit’s assistant director of engineering and construction. The Cedar Grove Station in Eagan reroutes passengers off the highway and onto residential streets.

The detour slows travel time, which can lead to fewer riders, he said.

Station improvements

The time-consuming route will be replaced in 2017 by a new Cedar Grove station in the middle of Hwy. 77 that can be accessed by skyways, Jones said. That station is expected to cost $13 million. The Minnesota Department of Transportation will provide an additional $2 million to improve the highway in the area.

An open house was held on the station design last month. Transit officials are in the middle of creating a detailed design of the project, and construction is scheduled for next year, Jones said.

The new station will shave about 10 minutes off a round trip commute, Jones said. A trip from the southernmost station in Apple Valley to the Mall of America and back takes 46 minutes of travel time, according to the Red Line schedule.

Officials also hope to cut down delays with improvements to the Mall of America station. Buses and cars currently wait in the same lane, which often backs up down the street, Jones said. A redesign will allow buses to directly enter the transit station and bypass the wait, among other changes.

Metro Transit plans to wrap up construction at the Mall of America in 2017, Jones said. However, only $14 million of the $25 million needed for the Mall of America station renovation has been secured, he said. The agency plans to request a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Numerous other upgrades and studies are planned for the Red Line in the future. A station will be added along on-ramp from Cliff Road to northbound Hwy. 77. And Dakota County wants to work with cities to look for ways to increase building density around the stations, County Transit Manager Kristine Elwood said.

One upgrade that’s not warranted — at least in the next 25 years — is a pedestrian bridge at the 147th Street Station, Elwood said.

The city of Apple Valley has been pushing for the bridge.

“There’s a continuous disconnect between what the city wants and what’s justified,” Commissioner Tom Egan said.