If Minnesota Valley Transit Authority buses seem a bit more crowded these days, it's because more people are riding.

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

In total, the number of rides provided jumped from 663,208 in the first quarter of 2014 to 721,217 in the first three months of 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 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 beefed up trips from Rosemount to downtown Minneapolis in 2014 with four additional trips. Route 478 saw a ridership growth of 55 percent, rising from 4,897 last year to 7,608 this year, the agency said.

Additional 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 smart phone access to the web portal to allow 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 have free Wi-Fi on all MVTA buses and the agency has plans to launch a new smartphone app by the end of June.

In more good news, MVTA picked up the Gold Award in the American Public Transportation Association's (APTA) Bus Safety and Security Excelence Awards. The agency won in the category of transit providers that give 4 million rides or fewer each year.

The Gold Award is the APTA's top honor. MVTA won for it's collaboration with Eagan Police and Simon Properties to develop a Traffic Demand Management Plan that was put in place when the Twin Cities Premium Outlets opened last summer.

MVTA officials had visited Livermore, Calif. when a similar outlet mall opened there and led to massive traffic jams.

The agency partnerned with police and the mall's owners to offer free bus rides, alter some routes to reduce congestion and have staff on hand to help pedestrians get from the Cedar Grove Transit Station across the street to the shopping complex.

The plan was designed to keep traffic moving and bus riders and shoppers safe. It was also able to be put in place for other high traffic days such as Black Friday.

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

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