Hoping for another surge in riders after a period of sluggish growth, the people behind the new system of express buses heading from Scott County to downtown Minneapolis have extensively overhauled their schedule.

"We now have buses leaving every 15 minutes, on the quarter hour," said Kelly Meyer, assistant city manager in Prior Lake, one of the partners in a service dubbed BlueXpress. "In the past we have been more erratic: 20 after, 28 after, 40 after. There were reasons for that at the beginning, but in the end some of these times didn't make sense."

In response to surveys of riders, buses are also leaving downtown slightly earlier and later in the afternoon for a return to the suburbs. And officials are trying to plug more buses in at the busiest times, hoping to minimize the chances of riders having to stand on their feet for an hour after working all day long.

With gas prices and environmental consciousness on the rise, the new service--which started in July-- achieved a fair amount of use right from the start in a county with little history of transit service but a rapid uptick in congestion.

By August, its first full month, it was averaging about 400 passengers per day on 16 routes.

But growth has slowed. March's average of 498.6 passengers means the service is still inching toward the 500-rider threshold long after earlier trends might have indicated.

The obstacles? Surveys and citizen comments made many of them clear.

"One thing we know for sure is that many people would like us to add destinations," said Barbara Marschall, a Scott County commissioner. "They'd like us to serve, for instance, the I-494 corridor, and the airport."

But the money isn't there for that yet, officials add. The 494 corridor is a key destination for the county's commuters, but it isn't easy to serve: it's too stretched out, unlike downtown Minneapolis, which is concentrated.

Another frequent request, Meyer said, is for downtown service to extend a couple of extra miles to the University of Minnesota. The entities involved -- Shakopee and Scott County as well as Prior Lake -- would love to do some of those things, she said, but "it all goes back to operational funding."

Subsidies aren't coming from the cities' general funds, she said, but from regional dollars spun back to the locals from the Metropolitan Council, which oversees the metro area's transit service.

What can be done with the system's seven buses, officials said, is to make service from the new Southbridge Crossings station in Shakopee as reliable and convenient as possible.

Beginning this week, riders can count on:

• departures every quarter-hour from that station from 6:15 to 8 a.m.

• a downtown Gateway Ramp departure at 3:20 p.m., earlier than before, and a final bus at 5:50 p.m., a bit later than before.

• four buses leaving Gateway before 4:30 p.m., a heavy ridership period.

David Peterson • 952-882-9023