Two suburban transit agencies that have seen a sharp decline in ridership since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic are collaborating to learn what it might take to win former riders back and get new ones to hop on board.

Both the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) and SouthWest Transit had planned to conduct comprehensive audits of their respective systems to assess riders' needs and wants, identify gaps in their bus systems, and look at possibilities for new service. Rather than doing it separately, the agencies teamed up and hired a consultant to get answers.

The joint effort is not a signal that the two systems are planning to merge, at least not yet, said Len Simich, CEO of SouthWest Transit, which serves Eden Prairie, Carver, Chaska, Chanhassen and Victoria.

"We have talked on the fringe someday of the potential to join forces, but nothing is solid or imminent," Simich said. "There would be so many hurdles to get to that point." For now, the study "is all that it is."

The agencies have hired Maryland-based transportation planning firm Foursquare ITP to conduct the research and collect data from an online customer survey open until April 9.

The study and survey come as the two agencies continue to navigate major drops in ridership. SouthWest Transit's express service to downtown Minneapolis has fallen 85% and recovery isn't likely to happen soon, with major employers such as Target and Wells Fargo continuing to keep employees at home.

MVTA's ridership systemwide was down 67% in 2020, though its local routes showed the "most resilience," Crawford said. A bright spot has been its suburban express route from Mall of America to Burnsville to Shakopee — ridership is back to 75% of pre-pandemic levels.

Both agencies are looking for ways to better serve the suburbs, possibly with more on-demand service or expanded weekend hours. They're also looking to provide better connections between the two service areas in the south and southwest metro, said Richard Crawford, a spokesman for the MVTA, which serves seven cities south of the Minnesota River.

"We want to find out what people are looking for or what they want more of," Simich said. "We want to know what they want from a transit system that is not offered today. We are looking for options to make changes to deliver better service."

Efforts to expand service are already underway: SouthWest has grown its on-demand ride service, Prime, and added a point-to-point ride service that takes passengers to destinations along I-494; MVTA has started a new route serving the County Road 42 corridor through Prior Lake, Savage, Burnsville and Apple Valley.

"We are seeing much more travel between our service areas, so we are asking where are the synergies, are there things we can do together?" Simich said. "COVID will have an impact going forward. We know we have to do business differently."

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768