Public transit enthusiasts and a host of elected officials on Saturday celebrated the opening of the new D Line, providing bus-rapid transit service between Brooklyn Center and the Mall of America through the heart of Minneapolis — the busiest bus corridor in the state.

But the good news for the commuting public was somewhat tempered by Metro Transit service cuts that also went into effect Saturday, prompted by a lack of bus drivers.

The $75 million D Line, which was completed on time and under budget, is a vast improvement over existing Route 5 local service. It features heated stations, real-time schedule information and security cameras on platforms. As with other BRT lines, it requires payment before boarding and features signal priority at intersections to hasten service, which is up to 25% faster.

Major employers along the 18-mile D Line include Hennepin Healthcare, Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Children's Minnesota and the Mall of of America in Bloomington. The corridor is important to the Metro Transit system, said Katie Roth, director of arterial bus-rapid transit service at Metro Transit.

"There are a lot of customers on this corridor who use transit to get to jobs, to school, for shopping, and to see family and friends," she said.

At the same time, service is being cut by 8% as dozens of bus routes have been curtailed or eliminated. The move follows previous cuts prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people chose to stay home and work remotely. Only about half of Metro Transit's overall ridership has returned, though ridership on bus-rapid transit routes has made a stronger recovery.

When asked whether it's wise to expand transit service when people can't be found to operate buses and trains, Metro Transit spokesman Drew Kerr said bus-rapid transit lines like the D Line are largely replacing local bus routes, making a significant boost in drivers unnecessary.

"Staffing needs are being continuously evaluated as we develop future service plans, including the introduction of new services," Kerr said in an email.

The service cuts haven't gone unnoticed. A group of fervent transit customers gathered Thursday night outside Metro Transit's Minneapolis headquarters to protest the cuts, hoisting signs that declared "Boost the Bus" and "Do Better." The rally was led by advocacy group Move Minnesota to encourage the transit agency to improve service, not diminish it.

Pat Thompson of St. Paul said the Route 87 bus she relies on is being cut back to hourly service during off-peak hours. "If you're a few minutes late, you have to wait almost an hour to get the next one," she said. "I'm here to say that's not OK."

The bus driver shortage isn't unique to Metro Transit. More than nine in 10 public transit agencies nationwide have reported difficulties in hiring new employees, according to Transit Center, a New York foundation that focuses on transit issues.

A report released by the organization in July characterizes the operator shortage as a full-fledged crisis. Once considered a reliable, middle-class job, bus drivers are finding their wages eroded by higher living and housing costs, the report notes.

Moreover, the number of drivers who have been physically assaulted has increased, and "rigid scheduling requirements" can make family care difficult, according to the report. A wave of retirements, dubbed a "silver tsunami," has depleted ranks as well.

Ryan Timlin, president of Local 1005 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents Metro Transit bus and light-rail operators, said that split shifts common to bus drivers' schedules "makes for a long day." Often there is little time for drivers to take breaks, he said.

While the union recently won a 6.5% pay increase in contract negotiations, Timlin said it's increasingly difficult for his members to make ends meet, given inflation and the rising cost of living in the Twin Cities.

"That was a Band-Aid," Timlin said. Metro Transit "will have to raise wages" to attract new and keep existing employees, he added.

Metro Transit is currently budgeted for 1,393 bus operators, but 343 of those jobs remain unfilled. It's been holding frequent hiring events, including one scheduled for Wednesday. Jobs offer $26.16 an hour to start (with a raise the following year of more than a dollar an hour), a hiring bonus of up to $5,000, health benefits and a pension plan.

Despite the service cuts, Metro Transit officials say there's some good news: nearly 100 people attended hiring events last month, and most all of them passed an initial screening.

"A month of good news does not mean we are out of the woods," Kerr said. "But it is an encouraging indicator and something we hope to build on going into 2023."

In the meantime, transit officials are busy planning the B Line arterial bus-rapid transit service linking Minneapolis' Uptown neighborhood to St. Paul beginning in 2024, a corridor currently served by the Route 21 bus.

Existing arterial BRT service — the A and C Lines — have proven popular with passengers. All told, Metro Transit hopes to have 12 BRT lines in place by 2030.

"In these corridors, we're not just seeing people getting into downtown on work commutes, they're getting to a variety of destinations," Roth said.