Public officials keen on the next big bus thing, bus enthusiasts — yes, they're legion — and people who just wanted to get someplace faster all showed up Saturday in the south suburbs for the inaugural service of Minnesota's first rapid-transit bus line.

Metro Transit's $112 million Red Line, as the bus service has been christened, will be closely watched. It is an attempt to essentially create a light-rail line on rubber tires that could be emulated throughout the metro area.

It kicked off its route Saturday from Apple Valley to the Mall of America with free rides for all.

"I'm so happy about the increased [bus] coverage," said Roxy Knuttila, who was riding the bus northbound on her way to visit a friend. The Lakeville resident said she often rides buses along with her bicycle, as an easy way to get to bike paths.

Behind Knuttila sat Sasha Williams of Eagan, a regular bus rider, too, who uses public transportation to get to her culinary arts classes at St. Paul College.

"I live in an apartment building where everyone rides the bus, so I keep up with all the transit news," Williams said. As for the Red Line, she said, "I want to see how it works" as the bus approached the Mall of America. She said she might a do a little shopping, too.

Known as bus rapid transit or BRT, the Red Line will use seven new buses to provide all-day service in a continuous north-south loop between the megamall and the Apple Valley Transit Station at 15450 Cedar Avenue S.

The route comprises 11 miles of bus-only shoulder lanes. It has two stops in Apple Valley and one in Eagan.

The Red Line will help link Dakota County to downtown Minneapolis via the Hiawatha light-rail line (or Blue Line), which terminates at the Mall of America. Another light-rail line, this one from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, is expected to open next year, and more light-rail and BRT lines are planned to follow.

The Cedar Avenue line was years in the making, first discussed in the late 1990s.

"Dakota County has worked so very hard to make this thing a reality, and there were challenges," Kathleen Gaylord, chairwoman of the Dakota County Board, said at an inauguration ceremony packed with public officials at the Apple Valley Transit Station.

"The Red Line takes transit in Dakota County and Minnesota to the next level," Gaylord said.

Jeremy Koletar was happy with it Saturday. The 15-year-old from Lakeville was riding the new bus to get to Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where his mother works.

With the Red Line, he can transfer at the Mall of America to the Hiawatha or Blue Line, and get off at the train's Cedar-Riverside stop.

"By far the easiest way to get there now is by bus," Koletar said. "I like the idea that in recent years, the buses have paid more attention to the south suburbs," he added.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003