Metro Transit began allowing more passengers on its buses and light-rail trains Monday, as statewide pandemic restrictions start to lift.

The transit agency is allowing up to 20 passengers at a time on its standard 40-foot buses and up to 30 passengers on its longer 60-foot articulated buses. As many as 33 passengers are allowed in light-rail cars.

Metro Transit also dropped its request for riders to take only essential trips, requesting instead that riders "travel responsibly." Masks are still required and passengers are asked to keep distance between themselves and other riders, the agency said.

When the pandemic hit, Metro Transit limited ridership on buses and trains to essential trips and allowed only 10 passengers at a time on its regular-size buses and a maximum of 15 at a time on its longer buses. Capacity in rail cars was capped at 25%.

The Minnesota Department of Health supports the new limits, Metro Transit said.

"Gov. Walz's recent 'turn of the dial' is leading us into a new phase of pandemic management. As more activity is allowed, we expect to see more demand for transit," General Manager Wes Kooistra said in a statement.

Buses that have reached capacity will not pick up passengers, and will display a message on the destination sign that reads "Next Bus Please." Drivers are encouraged to stop and tell waiting passengers when the next bus might arrive.

The move to increase capacity comes after Metro Transit reported a 53% drop in ridership last year, attributing much of that decline to the pandemic.

Local bus service was down 48% and provided about 22 million rides in 2020. Light-rail ridership on the Blue and Green lines was down 59%, to 10.3 million, according to figures from the Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit.

Metro Transit said it will monitor ridership to determine which routes might need additional trips or larger buses to avoid overcrowding.

"We take these concerns seriously and will continue to monitor ridership to understand where and when more service may be needed," Kooistra said.

The Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, Maple Grove Transit and Plymouth Metrolink also increased capacity to 50% on Monday. SouthWest Transit had already been operating at half capacity since it installed row separators and ion purification systems at the beginning of the year, but the agency has extra buses at the ready if passenger loads grow larger, said CEO Len Simich.

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768