It's not that she hates city buses. She takes them all the time. But when she steps from the floral-scented atmosphere of the Eden Prairie station into one of the gleaming black coaches of SouthWest Transit, Lori York enters a different world than the one she encounters on Metro Transit buses.

Here, unlike the city bus, she feels like a first-class airline passenger, from the style of the announcements over the loudspeaker to the reclining coach seats, the footrests and the cup holder.

SouthWest, she says, is "more in touch with what a suburban commuter expects for a nice ride."

But that two-tier Twin Cities bus system, with fancy coaches serving some suburbs while bare-bones buses cruise city streets, has long rankled those who get the frill-free treatment.

And key city legislators are now openly suggesting it's unacceptable -- especially in light of data suggesting the suburban services cost significantly more per passenger. The legislative auditor is in the midst of a major study, the kind that can lead to landmark legislation.

The rumbles of change have civic leaders in the "golden crescent" of upscale western and southern suburbs worried that they could lose the ability to provide the high-quality service that draws longer-range commuters out of their cars.

While insisting it isn't pushing to put them out of business, the Metropolitan Council, which runs Metro Transit, the region's main city transit system, is drawing attention to numbers suggesting that suburban providers are taking taxpayers for a ride:

• Subsidies for express bus services run by the six so-called "opt-outs" -- suburbs or clusters of suburbs that chose years ago to withdraw from the main system -- can run twice as high per rider as Metro Transit's.

• Subsidies for local routes can run five times as high as Metro Transit's local suburban routes: in one case, close to $20 per passenger.

But the opt-outs say those numbers are misleading, failing to account for a number of factors -- notably the very different terrain the two cover.

The fundamental problem, says Met Council Chairman Peter Bell, is this: "We're providing 94 percent of the service, but we get only 85 percent [of transit dollars]. It's hard to overstate, in my mind, the importance of that."

The main thing propping up the two-tier system, some DFLers say, is pure political muscle.

"These suburban providers are from very powerful suburbs and they have a lot of clout," said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who has led legislative efforts to rein in the suburban buses. The biggest opt-out of all, she noted, serves Gov. Tim Pawlenty's home city of Eagan.

That kind of talk, though, infuriates civic leaders in upscale suburbs, who note that some of the numbers that look most outlandish on paper are actually their attempt to serve low-income populations who are not conveniently gathered into high-density poverty zones.

"This is not your typical transit market," said Len Simich, CEO of SouthWest Transit, seated in a conference room overlooking his gorgeous Eden Prairie station, landscaped like a luxury hotel. "Ninety-nine percent of our riders have options. We have to be sure our facilities and equipment meet their needs and expectations. I won't say our customer service is over the top, but we want to be the Nordstrom's of the transit world."

Two worlds

York, who starts her ride in Shakopee, takes both SouthWest and Metro Transit -- and she sees the difference. The drivers, for instance. "Don't get me wrong, there are some outstanding drivers on local routes as well," she said. "There is just a consistency in the quality of drivers I've experienced on SouthWest Transit buses."

What is visible to the average bus riders downtown, however, is the difference in appearance -- notably SouthWest's gleaming black coaches.

"Everyone recognizes there are these nice black buses, more expensive ones, going to the rich southwest suburbs," Metropolitan Council member Tony Pistilli, of Brooklyn Park, once observed. "Living in the northern suburbs, I hear that from people all the time."

There is wide agreement that Metro Transit provides a quality service. "Metro and other providers in our urban core do a wonderful job," SouthWest's Simich said. "The same year we won a big national award among systems our size, so did they."

"I've been very satisfied," said JoAnn Daly, who commutes from Blaine to downtown St. Paul on Metro Transit buses. "They run within a minute or two of their scheduled times for the most part. The drivers are saints in my book and do a great job."

Still, even folks in wealthy suburbs that aren't on Metro Transit's system can find it startling to visit opt-out peers.

A University of Minnesota professor not long ago invited residents of Woodbury and Eagan to visit each other's communities, eying them as places in which to grow old. The Woodbury folks pronounced Eagan's transit station, with its gourmet coffee nearby, as "fabulous." But Eagan residents who visited Woodbury wondered: "Where are the buses?"

Sorting it out

All this has been simmering for years. But now a combination of factors has change in the air, including shrinking revenues, a 2002 switch away from local funding of transit in favor of a statewide system, and pressure from the federal government on the Met Council to take a closer look at how it's all operating.

The legislative auditor is in the midst of sorting through the competing accusations. Lead auditor Judy Randall said three analysts plan to look at who is involved, places where the system overlaps, funding and examples from other parts of the country.

They started by trying to map all the transit agencies in the area, both bus and rail.

"It ended up being kind of messy," she said. "If you were starting from scratch, you wouldn't necessarily design a system like this."

Or, as Met Council Chairman Bell put it: "I've always said we're not looking to dismantle it -- but if it's such a great idea to have six, why not 12 or 24?"

A classic case of what the auditors will need to sort out: the opt-outs' claim that a key reason they cost more is that they go much longer distances. That means they can't turn the bus around and reload quickly with paying passengers in a limited rush hour.

The Met Council disputes that claim up to a point, but it does so very carefully. "Not all longer-distance routes have the highest subsidy per passenger," it said in a written response, "and ... the shorter routes do not inherently have lower subsidy levels per passenger."

That's true, but the council's own figures also show that higher-subsidy routes are likely to be the longer ones. Are they costlier, though, because more of them are fancier opt-out services or because they cover such distances? It's all a mess to sort out.

The Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a conservative research group that often probes what it considers oversubsidized government amenities, is steering clear of this one. Said Jonathan Blake, its vice president:

"I've seen what Chair Bell has said, and I've seen numbers that suggest the opposite. ... The game of trying to determine transit subsidies is complicated, and when it's an offshoot of a larger system, it's even more complicated." • 952-882-9023 • 952-882-9056