If Minnesota Valley Transit Authority buses seem more crowded these days, it’s because they are.

Figures released by the agency last week show that ridership was up 7.4 percent in the first quarter of 2015, compared with the January-to-March period of 2014.

The number of rides jumped from 663,208 in the first quarter of 2014 to 721,217 for the same period in 2015.

“We have been working very hard to provide a valuable service to our residents and riders, and I believe they are responding by using transit,” said Clint Hooppaw, MVTA board chair and an Apple Valley City Council member.

The agency attributed the uptick in ridership to a couple of factors.

In January, MVTA merged with the Prior Lake and Savage bus systems and launched a new route from the Marschall Road Transit Station in Shakopee to downtown Minneapolis. That route, No. 493, has provided 2,878 rides with an average of 70 riders a day, the agency said.

MVTA also added four trips from Rosemount to downtown Minneapolis in 2014. Route 478 saw a ridership growth of 55 percent, rising from 4,897 last year to 7,608 this year, the agency said.

More trips from the southeastern metro suburb to Minneapolis could be added in May, said Robin Selvig, manager of customer relations.

The agency also launched a new website in January and has Web and smartphone access that allows riders to track buses.

“The MVTA has implemented many additional tools that are useful for riders,” said executive director Beverley Miller.

By the end of May, MVTA will have free Wi-Fi on all buses and it plans to launch a smartphone app by the end of June.

MVTA recently picked up top honors in the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) Bus Safety and Security Excellence Awards. MVTA won for its collaboration with Eagan police and Simon Properties to develop a traffic plan for last summer’s opening of the 400,000-square-foot Twin Cities Premium Outlets at Cedar Avenue and Hwy. 13.

The agency partnered with police and the outlet owners to offer free bus rides, reduce congestion and provide staff to help pedestrians cross the street from the Cedar Grove Transit Station to the shopping complex.

The MVTA serves the cities of Rosemount, Burnsville, Eagan, Apple Valley, Savage, Shakopee and Prior Lake.