Results of a recent survey of Metro Transit riders suggest they are generally happy with their train and bus service, with 88 percent of them giving the agency high marks. That's just a tick above the 87 percent who said they were satisfied when the Metro Transit Customer Survey was last conducted two years ago.

Despite the positive marks turned in by the 11,500 respondents, riders were not shy about pointing out where Metro Transit's shortcomings lie. Asked to assess 22 attributes, they scored some just above a three on a one-to-five scale, with five being excellent, four good and three fair.

Riders said their biggest complaints are that trips take too long and hours of service are too limited. They have concerns about reliability and punctuality.

"Those are items that are important to customers in terms of satisfaction," said Bruce Howard, director of customer service and marketing for Metro Transit. "We have room for improvement, and asking customers where they want us to focus is a big part of that."

Metro Transit is trying to improve travel times. In the coming months, Metro Transit will open its first arterial bus-rapid transit line, running from the 46th Street light-rail station into St. Paul and along Snelling Avenue. At least two other BRT lines have been proposed with the idea that they will offer faster service. Metro Transit also would like to add "Night Owl" trips and expand service to meet the needs of a growing number of riders who use the bus for shopping, social events and medical appointments.

Riders gave Metro Transit its highest scores for the ease of paying their fares, which can be done with cash or prepaid fare cards. They believe they get a good value for the cost and say for the most part that drivers operate buses in a safe manner. They rated those attributes in the good to excellent range. They appreciate clean buses, but say that conditions at bus shelters could be improved and crowding is sometimes a problem.

Directing resources

Metro Transit has enjoyed strong ridership in recent years, but new riders are not hopping on as fast. Only 11 percent have started taking the bus in the past year; more crosstown routes and increased frequency on popular routes might reach those who can't drive or choose to live a car-free or car-light lifestyle.

"If we build a park-and-ride and there isn't enough service, that becomes important to customers," Howard said. "If we don't have enough seats, those problems usually solve themselves and we won't have as many riders. As we expand bus service, can we serve those types of trips? One of the challenges is, where do we spend our resources?

"We're happy that nine of 10 customers are satisfied, but we don't want to rest on our laurels."

While the transit system here runs more smoothly than beleaguered systems in New York, Boston and Chicago (which Joshua Schank of the Washington D.C.-based think tank Eno Center for Transportation calls "the worst model of all" because of its complex funding and governance structure), the future is unclear.

A proposal passed by the Minnesota House would force Metro Transit to reduce regular bus service by at least 17 percent. The fate of that proposal will be decided in the overall transportation spending bill hashed out by the House, Senate and Gov. Mark Dayton.