It was with high hopes that the Suburban Transit Association (STA) in January launched the region’s first suburb-to-suburb express and limited-stop bus service, a way for people to get to and from jobs clustered along the I-494 and Hwy. 169 corridors in the west and southwest metro.

The STA held ribbon cuttings and commuter fairs and launched a splashy website to market the service. It just didn’t catch on.

On April, 4, Demonstration Route 494 will roll for the last time, just three months after the pioneering route jointly operated by the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, SouthWest Transit, Maple Grove Transit and Ply­mouth Metrolink got started, hailed as a much-needed connector for those employed along the busy corridors.

But too few people hopped on — an average of one person per bus — and that led to the decision to suspend the route, said James Clark, who speaks for the STA at the Capitol. “It was a little too ambitious, and the route was too long,” he said.

So the transit partners will head back to the drawing board and look for ways to retool Route 494 and possibly bring it back later this year. Clark said the STA remains committed to offering suburb-to-suburb service and is “confident it can put good service on the street.”

When the service began, it was unclear how many people would ride Route 494, but the potential was vast, the STA said. It pointed to several large employers that have offices in the western suburbs. For example, TCF Bank consolidated operations and now has 1,700 employees at its Plymouth campus. Jobs in the 14 cities covered by the STA members are forecast to grow by 50 percent and its population by 36 percent over the next two decades, according to the Metropolitan Council’s Thrive MSP 2040 report. That underscored the need for improved and expanded transit options, the STA said.

The STA even got $2 million to run the service for two years.

Gaps emerged

Route 494 buses make 10 trips each morning and 10 in the afternoon and early evening — between Station 73 in Plymouth and the Marschall Road Transit Station in Shakopee, the SouthWest Transit Station in Eden Prairie, Hopkins Crossroad Transit Station off I-394 and the Maple Grove Transit Station. Buses run about every 30 minutes and serve the headquarters of UnitedHealth Group and Optum in Eden Prairie. The fare is $2.25 each way. From each station, riders are able to connect to local buses or services such as Plymouth’s Dial-A-Ride or SouthWest Transit’s SW Prime to complete their trip at no extra charge.

That may have been Route 494’s biggest downfall. Transit stations were not immediately next to employment centers. That left riders with the task of finding a way to complete their trip. With that gap in the service, Route 494 never really caught on. And if it is ever to succeed, the STA will have to find a way to make that happen.

While Route 494 is on hiatus, let’s give props to the STA for daring to try something new and for the courage to stop something that was not working and too costly.

“Suburb-to-suburb bus service truly is a new concept for our region,” said STA Chairman and Plymouth City Council Member Jeff Wosje. “In the first two months of service, we’ve already identified key learnings. We want to make sure we are spending taxpayer money responsibly.”

 

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet@stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.