A pilot program that adds a transit pass to monthly parking contracts is the latest effort to entice downtown Minneapolis workers who drive alone to take the bus or train a few days a week.

The University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) are testing the Flexpass program at the city-run ABC parking ramps near Target Center. The goal is to see if allowing commuters to bundle parking and transit costs will mitigate congestion and pollution as commuters shift some trips to transit.

If the pilot is successful and Flexpass becomes a regular offering, it is believed Minneapolis would be the first city in the nation to offer a single pass that gives commuters the option to drive and park or take transit.

"People want different parking products," said Elliott McFadden, MnDOT's Shared Mobility Program coordinator.

For years, transportation officials have focused on carpooling to reduce the number of solo drivers. But that has not worked. The number of registered carpoolers at the three large ramps has declined since 2005, dropping from 1,253 a month to about 900 in 2020 before COVID-19 hit. Even a heavily discounted $20 monthly rate for carpoolers has not enticed drivers to double up.

At the same time, monthly contracts for single drivers have risen to about 3,100, according to a U report and data from MnDOT.

"A lack of interest in carpooling is one reason we looked at Flexpass," McFadden said.

Two options are being tested. Flexpass10 offers 10 days of guaranteed parking a month. It costs $110. Flexpass14 offers 14 days of guaranteed parking a month for $125. Card holders can pay the daily rate on any additional days they drive provided space is available.

Both packages come with an all-you-can-ride transit pass good on all Twin Cities metro area local and express buses and light-rail trains. Flexpass also covers up to $3.25 for rides on the Northstar commuter line with users paying any additional fares.

Researchers launched Flexpass in October and initially offered it only to standard contract holders who pay $145 a month at Ramp A, $165 at Ramp B, and $160 at Ramp C. But with many commuters working at home due to the pandemic and with the ABC ramps at just 10% capacity, few downtown workers have signed up.

"It has been tough to get a sense of interest," said Galen Ryan, a U researcher.

The U recently partnered with Move Minneapolis, the city's transportation management organization, to expand participation by inviting other commuters to purchase a parking contract to join the study. Existing contract holders at ABC ramps can also still sign up, Ryan said.

Participants can choose to download an app that will record trip activity. The data will help researchers collect enough data to assess how Flexpass is impacting travel. The study will run until the summer.

Nationally, transit systems have partnered with ride-share companies such as Uber and Lyft to encourage transit use. More recently, systems have even joined forces with pro basketball teams in Phoenix and Oakland to offer rides to fans who buy tickets. But Flexpass appears to be a first, said Chad Chitwood of the American Public Transportation Association.

"Specifically tying it to a parking pass seems new," he said. "We are very supportive of innovative programs to encourage ridership."

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768