Faced with a shortage of bus drivers, Metro Transit said Wednesday it will pare some of its service to this summer's Minnesota State Fair.

Metro Transit will offer rides every half-hour to the fair from three sites: County Road 73 and Interstate 394 in Minnetonka; Hwy. 61 at Jamaica Avenue in Cottage Grove; and near the Blue Line's 28th Avenue Station in Bloomington.

Acting Chief Operating Officer Brian Funk said Metro Transit opted to focus its resources on providing regular bus service, given the dearth of drivers. Like many transit agencies nationwide, Metro Transit is grappling with a labor shortage.

"We're about 49 drivers below our ideal level," Funk said, noting that another 15 drivers are in training and dozens more are in the employment pipeline. But the new drivers won't be ready by the time the fair opens Aug. 26.

In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, Metro Transit provided some 545,000 rides from 10 park-and-ride sites throughout the metro to the State Fairgrounds in St. Paul.

Funk said ridership is down on Metro Transit service to special events, such as Twins games. But the decision wasn't based on uncertainty regarding attendance at the fair during the pandemic, he said.

Fair officials are currently mulling whether masks should be required for indoor attractions on the fairgrounds, given the surge in COVID infections and hospitalizations due to the delta variant. But no decision has been announced.

It's unclear if a mask mandate would affect attendance. Before the pandemic, the 12-day event — which this year closes on Sept. 6, Labor Day — typically attracted more than 2 million people. Last year, the fair was canceled due to the COVID outbreak, only the sixth time in its 162-year history.

Metro Transit's decision won't affect bus service provided by the State Fair near the fairgrounds.

The Minnesota Valley Transit Authority will continue to offer direct, round-trip service to the fair from the south metro. Stops will be located at the Burnsville Transit Station at Hwy. 13 and Nicollet Avenue; the Eagan Transit Station at Yankee Doodle Road and Pilot Knob Road at Interstate 35E; Southbridge Crossings Park and Ride, 1401 Crossings Blvd., and the Marschall Road Transit Station, 1615 Weston Court, both in Shakopee.

SouthWest Transit also will offer service to the fair from SouthWest Station in Eden Prairie and SouthWest Village in Chanhassen. On weekends and Labor Day, service will be available from East Creek Station in Chaska.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

Twitter: @ByJanetMoore