The way southwest metro residents commuted changed in 2018, and SouthWest Transit CEO Len Simich anticipates further shifts this year.
Following a strong showing of 2,074 special event rides on Feb. 3, the day before the Super Bowl was held in downtown Minneapolis, SouthWest saw ridership of its Express lines dip by 4 percent over 2018, according to an annual report.
Through annual surveys and focus groups, Simich said the reason had to do with work schedule flexibility. The Express lines include commuter-friendly routes to locations such as downtown Minneapolis and Best Buy headquarters.
“This whole thing really started kicking off back around the Super Bowl, where people had the option not to go into the office,” he said, “and it really never picked up again.”
As for its SW Prime service, SouthWest Transit is rushing to keep up with the demand. Prime, offering on-demand ride sharing, transfers riders between Eden Prairie, Chanhassen, Chaska and Victoria locations.
Prime saw a 37 percent increase over the last year.
“And the only reason it wasn’t higher was because we didn’t have any additional vehicles,” Simich said. “We were adding vehicles as fast as we could.”
SouthWest added three vehicles last month, Simich said, with three more to come next month. Among the Prime fleet are smaller buses, vans and even Chevy Equinoxes.
Prime services had an equally hefty jump in 2017, when the service gave 70,000 rides and had a 40 percent increase from 2016. Prime’s growth will continue to grow as demand piles up in Carver County, Simich said, where less workers commute to Downtown Minneapolis.
As for the Express line, more rides will be added for special events at Target Field and U.S. Bank Stadium. In 2018, SouthWest Transit brought just under 2,000 passengers to major concerts in Minneapolis that included Kenny Chesney, Beyonce, Ed Sheeran and Journey.
SouthWest Transit, the public transit agency for Carver, Chaska, Chanhassen and Eden Prairie, negotiated with the Metropolitan Council over the price of its Eden Prairie station for 3-1/2 years.
When the Met Council announced Nov. 14 that the Federal Transit Administration had given a letter of no prejudice, construction of the $2 billion project was a go. The 14-1/2-mile extension of Metro Transit’s Green Line will connect Downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie at the current location of the SouthWest Transit Station.
Simich said overall, he doesn’t expect light rail to impact its Express service at peak hours. During evenings and throughout the day, Express ridership may be lower.
“And what that does is it allows me to take that budget and put that budget to work in other areas,” he said. “Whether we have more Prime service, or if our plan is to start having service along I-494, or whatever the case. So I don’t see it as a negative at all, because it’s really a prime option for people in the southwest area.”
The final price tag in the sale of the station and some of the property was $8 million. SouthWest Transit kept the ramp and bus way. While the LRT will have the lobby and customer service desk replaced, SouthWest will have its own customer service desk.
“So the area that right now connects the parking ramp to the station, that’s going to be enclosed and that will be a temporary customer waiting station. Until they build a new one, that will be a joint operation,” he said.
The letter left SouthWest with the task of finding new administrative office space over a year until permanent offices could be built. The Met Council gave upfront funding for the temporary moves, and within a month, most staff were moved to an Eden Prairie garage. Simich and marketing staff share a location at SouthWest Village in Chanhassen.
There are several options being weighed for the long-term offices at the moment. They include:
- Another expansion at the Eden Prairie garage, with the addition of meeting rooms, Simich said. The company has already reached its maximum threshold in coverage area on the site, so it would have to build up. Some engineering studies have already been done in consideration of this option.
- Adding 3,000 to 5,000 square feet of meeting and office space to SouthWest Village in Chanhassen.
- Constructing a building, with the option of making it multi-tenant, at a property in Chanhassen.
Another change to come in 2019 is to the SouthWest Transit Board, where four out of the seven members will be new. As SouthWest Transit is already in touch with engineers and architects, it is waiting for each of the seven board members to be in place before making a decision concerning office space by the end of the year.