Metro Transit will suspend 5% of its current schedule in December when it enacts its quarterly route changes driven largely by ridership that continues to lag some 20 months into the pandemic, as well as difficulty in hiring enough bus drivers.

Most of the service cuts will affect local urban routes where buses will run less frequently and in some cases not at all when changes take effect Dec. 4.

Some express routes will also see reduced service and two routes — the 597 and 535 — will be eliminated with the opening of the new Metro Orange Line, which will provide rapid bus trips between downtown Minneapolis and Burnsville.

"Our need here has been driven by the goal to be 100% reliable," said Brian Funk, Metro Transit's acting chief operating officer. "We know customers standing at bus stops and platforms are counting on us. We don't want to operate in the environment of uncertainty."

Metro Transit operates more than 5,500 bus trips each weekday, but the agency recently has had to cancel scores of trips because it lacks enough drivers.

To run its full schedule, Funk said Metro Transit is 80 drivers short of the 1,200 it needs.

And that does not take into account driver absences, which further reduce operator availability.

"If a driver cannot make it to work, trips don't operate," Funk said. "When [an absence] is not planned, it affects routes and customers unfairly. It becomes a puzzle game and we are trying to minimize surprises and missing buses for customers."

Metro Transit on Monday morning scrubbed 80 trips between 5 and 10 a.m. according to e-mail Rider Alerts.

Five local routes will be suspended and seven core routes will run less often. Routes going on hiatus include Route 19 from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Center and Route 16, which travels along University Avenue in St. Paul. Riders on Route 19, which travels along Olson Hwy. and Penn Avenue, can find alternate service on the Metro C-Line. Route 16 riders can make their trips using the Green Line.

Route 84, which runs along Snelling Avenue also will disappear. Riders will be shifted to the A-line.

In those cases it may mean walking farther to a bus stop.

"It's not the same as a local bus, but the Metro line is in proximity," Funk said, referencing the cuts.

For others, it will mean a new route and a slightly longer trip.

Metro Transit is stopping express routes 351 from downtown St. Paul to Woodbury and 355 from downtown Minneapolis to Woodbury. Those routes will be consolidated into Route 353, which will serve both downtowns with five rush-hour trips in each direction.

Metro Transit evaluated current ridership patterns when deciding which routes to put on hold. It also looked at equity to reduce impact on people of color or low-income communities. The agency also tried to preserve frequent service of 10 to 15 minutes on existing routes, Funk said.

The cuts, Funk said, will allow Metro Transit "to better allocate its resources across the system."

Before the pandemic, the transit agency provided about 260,000 rides daily on weekdays, said spokeswoman Laura Baenen. Recent figures show ridership was 81,000 total in June and 97,000 in July. So far this year the agency has provided just under 23.5 million rides through September, according to the National Transit Database.

In 2019, Metro Transit provided about 78 million rides to passengers, and just 36 million last year.

The area's largest transit agency offered discounted $1 fares during September and October in an effort to lure riders back. It was not immediately clear if the promotion boosted ridership. Regular fares of $2 for trips outside rush hour and $2.50 during morning and afternoon rush hours returned Nov. 1.

But none of that matters if there is nobody to drive the bus.

Metro Transit is hardly the only agency facing a bus driver shortage and being forced to cut service. Transit systems in St. Louis, New York City, Thousand Palms, Calif., Seattle, San Francisco and Richmond, Va., have recently or will cut routes because of staffing shortages.

Metro Transit is working to recruit more drivers. It has two hiring events — for the jobs that begin at $21 hour — scheduled for Nov. 13 and 16.

With a goal to get more people in the driver's seat, Funk said he hopes many of the suspended routes and the frequency of service can be restored when Metro Transit makes schedule changes again in March and June.

"It's still important, even if there are only five people on the bus," Funk said.

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768