Growing up in Rapid City, S.D., Lesley Kandaras often took the bus to the movies downtown with her brother, long before she could drive a car.

Still an inveterate public transit user, Kandaras has been named general manager of Metro Transit, becoming the first woman in the agency's history to permanently fill the position, the Metropolitan Council announced Thursday.

Kandaras, 43, of Minneapolis, assumes the helm of a vast agency with an annual operating budget of $530 million and some 3,000 employees that serves the seven-county metro area. But it's also a public agency facing many challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a steep decline in transit ridership, given the rise of remote work. Crime aboard the Green and Blue light-rail lines has prompted the Met Council to adopt broad-based Safety and Security Action Plan. And a dearth of bus drivers and light-rail operators has complicated service expansion plans.

Kandaras applied for the job, she said, because "it's really a critical time in transit coming out of the pandemic with the changes in travel behavior we're seeing, and with the historic investment in transportation, including transit."

Recently released data indicates that riders are steadily returning to Metro Transit's buses and light-rail trains. Ridership through April surged by nearly 20% when compared with the same period last year.

"Fundamentally we're really trying to understand the enduring travel behavior changes we're seeing," she said.

And the system is expanding, with plans for the Blue Line in Brooklyn Park and the Gold and Purple bus-rapid transit (BRT) lines in the east metro, along with several new arterial bus lines across the region. By 2030, Metro Transit expects to be operating a dozen BRT lines throughout the Twin Cities.

The DFL-controlled Legislature this year approved a metro-area sales tax for public transit, $50 million for the Blue Line extension, and a $25 million upgrade to Rice Street near the State Capitol in St. Paul, including a multimodal hub at the Green Line light-rail station.

"Lesley is the right person for this position because she recognizes how important transit is to the economic vitality, environmental sustainability, and quality of life in the Twin Cities," Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle said in a news release.

Kandaras was named interim general manager of Metro Transit after Wes Kooistra, who had been in the job for four years, retired in February. The position pays an annual salary of $220,000.

She joined the Met Council in 2012, working in the communications and government affairs departments. She has been with Metro Transit since 2019 and has served as senior manager of policy development and chief of staff.

A frequent rider on the Route 9 bus and the Blue Line, which she boards at the troubled Lake Street/Midtown station, Kandaras said she's "very familiar with public safety challenges we're facing and the need to improve the rider experience."

She said building partnerships and coalitions in the community could help mitigate broader societal challenges affecting the transit experience, including homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and mental health issues.

Kandaras said she's encouraged by efforts so far to stem crime, including using private security guards at troubled light rail stations, "but we still have a long way to go." The Metro Transit Police Department is down about 60 officers, and she said "our top priority is to rebuild that."

Deb Barber, chair of the Met Council's Transportation Committee, said Kandaras "is approaching this important work as both an opportunity and challenge."

Kandaras received her undergraduate degree from Hamline University with a double major in sociology and political science, and a graduate degree in sociology from the University of Chicago. She was also a Fulbright scholar, working in Manitoba studying community activism and free trade issues tied to a hydroelectric dam on Indian land.

Zelle called Kandaras "a well-respected leader with a deep knowledge and understanding of how transit can improve the quality of life for our region."