In an effort to lure back passengers who strayed from public transportation during the COVID-19 outbreak, Metro Transit plans to cut most fares on buses and trains to $1 a trip in September and October.

The move is a temporary promotion, part of a broader strategy by Metro Transit to boost ridership decimated during the pandemic when people worked at home rather than the office.

"As we emerge from the pandemic, we believe we have the opportunity to reintroduce ourselves to our customers and to the general public as a transit system that is committed to becoming stronger and better," said Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra.

Part of that effort involves expanding bus rapid transit and light-rail lines throughout the region, cleaning buses and trains more frequently, launching an initiative to enhance safety and improving existing bus stops.

Generally speaking, Metro Transit said passengers want clean, reliable and fast transit service — whether there's a pandemic or not.

Like many major employers, Metro Transit had expected more passengers to return to their commutes after Labor Day next month. However, as the deadly delta variant fastens its grip on the state and nation, employers increasingly are pushing back their return-to-the-office dates.

Last week, Target said that it won't require its 8,500 headquarters employees in downtown Minneapolis to return to the office until next year. Other large employers recently have made similar announcements; U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo, which have 12,000 downtown employees combined, delayed their return dates to October or later.

Ridership on Metro Transit runs roughly 40% to 45% of what it was before the pandemic. In 2019, Metro Transit provided about 78 million rides to passengers, a figure that fell to 36 million last year.

There are hints of a gentle resurgence. Metro Transit's average weekday ridership was 81,000 in June and increased to 97,000 in July. But that's a far cry from 260,000 average weekday ridership before the pandemic, according to data presented Monday to the Metropolitan Council's Transportation Committee.

The fare reduction includes $1 trips for those paying regular fares and 50 cents for those already enrolled in a reduced-fare program, such as seniors and students. In addition, there will be a 50% discount for the Metropass, Student Pass, College Pass and U Pass programs between September and December.

Currently, Metro Transit charges $2 for trips outside of rush hour, and $2.50 during morning and afternoon rush hours. Trips on express buses are $2.50 for trips off rush-hour and $3.25 for trips during rush hour.

The fare cut includes local, rapid and express bus routes, the Green and Blue light-rail lines, and Red Line bus-rapid transit. Rides by suburban bus providers, including Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, Maple Grove Transit and SouthWest Transit, are included in the promotion.

The idea of making fares simpler to understand has taken hold at transit agencies nationwide. Fare policies "often lack strategic direction" and are notoriously sensitive to the wiles of the economy, said a report last year by the New York-based nonprofit TransitCenter.

"Without high-level goals to direct fare policy and pricing, fare structures have become more confusing and economically regressive — often at odds with transit's mission to provide convenient, affordable service," the report states.

With different prices for various kinds of travel, Metro Transit's fare structure can be confusing to some passengers, Kooistra said. The two-month fare cut will give transit officials some insight into how the pandemic has changed passenger behavior and commuting patterns. For example, traditional morning and evening rush hour ridership has shifted in favor of more steady ridership throughout the day.

Metro Transit predicts it will collect about $63 million in fare revenue in 2022, about 10% of its proposed $651 million annual budget. But Kooistra said making predictions for budgeting and service during a pandemic is challenging.

"We've been in new territory for 20 months now," he said. "No one has been through this before so these forecasts are our best estimate. It's important for Metro Transit to really be able to adapt and adjust as new information comes in.

"We're learning as we go."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

Twitter: @JanetMoore