Mankato bus system to grow

Passengers board buses at the Cherry Street bus stop in downtown Mankato. A new grant will allow the area to expand bus routes to Eagle Lake and other unserved areas. File photo.

MANKATO — Regular bus service from Eagle Lake to Mankato, more frequent buses and more convenient routes within Mankato, and a new transit service for west Mankato, north-side neighborhoods and northern North Mankato.

Those are the improvements planned for the next six to 18 months after the Mankato City Council accepted a major state grant that will cover $1.7 million in new buses and other equipment and nearly $1.5 million in new operating costs.

"We did pretty well. Dollar-wise, we did really well," said Greater Mankato Transit Superintendent Mark Anderson of the grant award from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The two-year grant will boost the transit system's operating budget by about one-third, and the capital funding will cover the entire cost of six mid-sized buses and one full-sized city bus, along with 13 bus shelters and related transit equipment. Buses are manufactured after they're ordered, so there will be a delay in implementation of the expanded service, Anderson said.

"It's going to be kind of a floating target because all of the services are going to be dependent on when we can get buses," he said.

Much of the pilot project — dependent on the arrival smaller buses in about six months — could start by early 2018. Another improvement tying together a pair of major Mankato routes will require a full-sized bus, and that can take as many as 18 months to be manufactured, according to Anderson.

The biggest change will be for residents of Eagle Lake and for Mankato neighborhoods which are outside the existing system of bus routes. A new route between Eagle Lake and Mankato is expected to run about seven hours a day, Monday through Friday, for Eagle Lake residents looking to get to schools, appointments and jobs. A more abbreviated Sunday service will also be available for people looking to reach Mankato for shopping, dining or church services.

In Mankato and North Mankato, a weekday dial-a-ride service will be added for residents of areas that are outside the route system — most notably west Mankato, the Tourtellotte Park neighborhood, the Germania Park neighborhood near Third Avenue and the North Mankato subdivisions north of Benson Park.

Mid-day gaps in bus routes serving North Mankato will be eliminated, and Mankato's Route 7 — serving downtown, Minnesota State University and MRCI — will have a lengthier and more consistent service schedule. Route 7 may also be extended to include MSU's new business incubator on North Riverfront Drive in the Old Town district.

The arrival of the full-size bus late next year will allow Mankato's Routes 2 and 6 to be connected so riders don't need to transfer at MSU if they're traveling from downtown to the city's east side.

Also planned are substantial additions of hours of service for the mobility bus system, available for people with physical or mental disabilities that prevent them from using the fixed-route transit system. Eagle Lake residents will have access to the mobility bus service for the first time.

"You'll have improved access," Anderson said. "We're going to not-quite double the number of hours we're serving."

After the two years of funding expire, the cities of Mankato and Eagle Lake will have to decide whether to continue the expanded service. At that point, local revenues would have to cover 20 percent of the cost with MnDOT covering the rest.

If the new routes and services prove popular, that 20 percent share won't necessarily be a budgeting challenge for either city. Fares paid by riders can come close to covering the local share on successful routes, according to Anderson.

All of the changes come as the city, working with a consultant, is completing a Transit Development Plan to lay out service improvements for the next four years. That plan is expected to be presented to the City Council in December.

"This is a big opportunity for us to help expand the service," said Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges. "And it kind of sets the stage for what we're doing in the transit redesign ... . This will allow us to investigate some things."

Transit users and others interested in the transit system are invited to visit the planning project's website at www.mankatotransitstudy.com where they can take a survey, learn more about the service redesign process and find the dates and locations of open house meetings later this month.

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