The Metropolitan Council plans to end its contract with Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) to operate the Metro Red Line and have Metro Transit take over the south suburban bus rapid transit route.

Riders would see little change from the switch. Hours and frequency of service — every 20 minutes on weekdays, every 30 minutes on weekends — would remain at current levels, said Nick Thompson, the Met Council’s director of Metropolitan Transportation Services.

But the drivers behind the wheel would be different, and the move is a blow to the south metro transit agency that has operated the station-to-station service along Cedar Avenue between the Mall of America and Apple Valley since its 2013 debut.

Thompson said the change, first raised with MVTA as early as July, will save money in a particularly challenging budget year. Mayors of the cities served by the Red Line, however, said they were not consulted about the switch. Eagan and Apple Valley leaders have written letters supporting MVTA and asking the Met Council to reconsider.

“They have provided quality service to our community for 30 years and it is important that they continue in the role of operator of the Red Line BRT service,” the letter signed by Apple Valley Mayor Mary Hamann-Roland and City Council members said.

The agreement between the Met Council and MVTA would end Dec. 4, with Metro Transit service starting the next day, according to a termination notice the Met Council sent to MVTA last month.

The Red Line was the region’s first highway bus rapid transit line providing all-day frequent service and the opportunity for customers to pay fares before boarding.

From 2013 to 2017, the Met Council covered half the Red Line’s operational costs and the other half came from the Counties Transit Improvement Board that doled out proceeds from a sales tax for transit. After that board dissolved in 2017, the Met Council picked up the full responsibility.

The council has contracted with MVTA to deliver the service and maintain facilities, including the Cedar Grove and Apple Valley transit stations. But Thompson said the Met Council evaluates contracted routes annually and this year determined that Metro Transit was a better fit. The contract for the operating service for 2020 is $3.2 million.

“We do know it should be more efficient for [our] cost structure,” he said, although an exact savings has not been determined. “We have a fiscal cliff coming due to lower fare collection. We do expect lower costs” with the change.

Thompson said the council is also preparing to replace the Red Line fleet with new buses and that makes it a good time to move operations to Metro Transit.

MVTA CEO Luther Wynder said the decision was “a body blow” and adds to an already tough 2020. The Red Line represents about 6% of the agency’s weekday service hours and 25% of weekend service hours. About a quarter of MVTA’s workforce contributes to Red Line service, and could be out of a job.

He said the decision caught him by surprise, considering MVTA has high rider approval ratings, has maintained clean and safe facilities and has long-standing relationships with the council and the cities it serves. MVTA still wants to provide the service, and Wynder said the agency didn’t have much input before the decision was made.

“We are asking the chair of the council to meet with our board chair and have engagement with stakeholders and maybe walk back this decision,” Wynder said.