SouthWest Transit is expanding its on-demand ride service area.

Starting Monday, residents of the southwestern suburbs of Eden Prairie, Chaska, Chanhassen, Carver and Victoria will be able to book a ride on Prime and take the bus across the Minnesota River to Shakopee. And within the next few months, it may be possible to get a lift to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Mall of America or anyplace along the I-494 corridor.

"Going forward, Prime or offshoots of it will be our growth for some time," said CEO Len Simich. They "may be the first of many new services."

Like most local and national transit agencies, SouthWest saw a huge drop in ridership with the onset of the pandemic. Since March, ridership on its bread and butter express buses to downtown Minneapolis is down 85%, and recovery isn't likely to happen soon with major employers such as Target and Wells Fargo continuing to keep employees at home.

Prime, which allows riders to be picked up and dropped off wherever they want, saw a downturn, too. SouthWest provided about 500 rides a day pre-COVID-19; now it's about half that.

With buses idled and drivers at the ready, Simich said now is the time to roll out point-to-point service in Shakopee.

Following the 2016 opening of the Amazon fulfillment center, "lots of people migrate over there for work," he said. And judging by the amount of vehicular traffic on Hwys. 41 and 101, "a lot of people come from that side [of the Minnesota River] and work in Chanhassen, Chaska or Eden Prairie. People need transportation, so we said let's try it."

In Shakopee, the pickup and drop-off zone will be in an area roughly bounded by the Minnesota River to the north, Hwy. 169 down to the Hwy. 41 interchange to the west, 17th Avenue to the south and Canterbury Road to the east. Major employers such as Amazon, My Pillow and Shutterfly and key destinations such as the Scott County Government Center, downtown businesses and restaurants and the Shakopee Town Square are in the service zone. So are St. Francis Regional Medical Center and Canterbury Park.

Another key stop will be the park-and-ride off Hwy. 169 and Marschall Road. There, passengers can connect with buses operated by the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, which provides service in eight cities south of the Minnesota River, including Shakopee.

"This is good example of regional cooperation," said MVTA spokesman Richard Crawford. "They can provide service in both of our services areas that doesn't currently exist."

This is the second time SouthWest has tried service to Shakopee. In 2017, it dropped fixed-route service due to low ridership. Prime offers more flexibility as riders create their own schedule and choose their destination. Rides cost $4.

In the future, SouthWest has plans to roll out a hybrid of Prime that will provide trips along the I-494 corridor through Bloomington, including the airport. That would not be on-demand service, but riders could book their trips within set time blocks, Simich said.

"It's not quite Prime, but it is not a planned route," Simich said, noting that, for example, westbound trips might be scheduled between noon and 2 p.m. and eastbound trips between 2 and 4 p.m.

No date has been set for the rollout of the hybrid service, which would also allow riders to book rides to destinations 1 mile on either side of I-494.

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