South suburban bus service operated by Prior Lake and Shakopee appears likely to merge with the metro area’s biggest suburban operator, the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, at the first of next year.

City councils for both suburbs are to vote on the merger in August.

Officials say the impetus is a desire for greater efficiency in the delivery of transit and the potential for improved service in the future, if money allows.

The cities will not have to pay to join the MVTA. But they will bring a substantial dowry with them in the form of money they have reserved for operating needs. Prior Lake will move its $1.6 million reserve and Shakopee, $840,000.

“The merger is really all about taking small operations in Prior Lake and Shakopee and looking at it in the future as a better system if it becomes part of a larger system,” said Dan Rogness, Prior Lake community and economic development director. “We are expecting a more efficiently run system with MVTA’s experience. We are hoping for expansion of services.”

The MVTA operates in five cities and has a lot of experience, Rogness said.

“Prior Lake and Shakopee just don’t have the dedicated staff to really put toward all the nuances of transit operations and planning.”

The bigger agency provides bus service in Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan and Rosemount — all in Dakota County — and also serves Savage in Scott County. It’s logical to add two more Scott County cities, Rogness said.

The two cities already jointly offer weekday express bus commuter service to downtown Minneapolis, said Kyle Sobota, senior planner for Shakopee.

That service, known as BluXpress, will not change if the merger occurs, but the color of the buses would be changed to match MVTA’s fleet, Sobota said. The commuter service operates now out of two park-and-ride lots, and a third facility is coming.

Fares up?

The Shakopee weekday circulator service, which provides 2,000 to 3,000 rides per month, is also expected to continue unchanged.

But fares may increase from $1 to $1.50 for adult riders, to get closer to the price of a bus ride in the regional transit system: $1.75 off-peak and $2.25 during peak hours.

In the future, Shakopee is hoping the MVTA will study a northern Scott County circulator that would take residents outside of their communities, to Burnsville Center, for example. “That has been discussed as an item to be funded as part of the merger,” Sobota said.

What specific use would be made of the transit reserves from the two cities is still under discussion. But some of the money would cover start-up costs and some would pay for a later study of future service.

Jane Kansier, project manager of the merger for MVTA, said she is hoping to have something the board can vote on later this month.

That agreement would be sent to both cities. If they ratify it, then all other member cities and counties of the MVTA would also have to agree.