Metro Transit bus

For Sun Prairie officials, a rush-hour bus route connecting the fast-growing suburb to the Capitol Square is just the beginning of what they hope will one day be the city’s full integration into Madison’s public bus system.

Route 23 between the Square and a Sun Prairie loop stretching as far as Main Street will be Metro Transit’s fifth foray into one of Madison’s outlying communities.

Beginning Aug. 26, three buses will run at approximately half-hour intervals from 6:31 a.m. to 8:46 a.m., and 3:45 p.m. to 6:08 p.m. Monday through Friday. The route totals about 23 miles, and a trip between the Square and a park-and-ride bus stop Sun Prairie plans to build south of Highway 151 will take just more than 30 minutes.

The route’s 12 stops will include ones near East Towne Mall and the American Center, and along O’Keeffe Avenue in Sun Prairie.

“The people who are going to be using it are predominantly people who are working around the Isthmus in Madison,” Sun Prairie Mayor Paul Esser said.

Public transportation in Sun Prairie is currently limited to a city-subsidized shared-ride taxi service that also operates a shuttle between the city and East Towne Mall that costs $5 each way, according to city transportation planner Philip Gritzmacher.

Esser said he’s been pushing for Metro service since he became mayor four years ago, but it began looking like a reality after the Madison School District decided to phase out using Metro to transport middle-school students as part of a change in school start times beginning in the fall. Metro planning and scheduling manager Drew Beck said that was among the factors that freed up capacity in the system.

A survey of Sun Prairie residents by UW-River Falls last year suggested what researchers called a “high level of support” for bus service between Sun Prairie and Madison, with 47% of respondents saying they would use an express service.

Thirty-one percent said they would ride it four or five days a week, which would translate into some 3,300 daily riders, an amount researchers called “aspirational.”

“If this proportion actually rode the bus most workdays one week a month, that would represent about 850 riders a day,” researchers said.

Beck said the Sun Prairie route is the first big project Metro has undertaken since extending service some eight miles out to Epic’s campus in Verona in 2005. Metro also operates in Middleton, Fitchburg and the town of Madison, all of which share borders with the city of Madison.

For new routes, Beck said Metro generally hopes to see from eight to 10 passengers per bus for every hour the route is in operation. Metro’s system average is in the low-30s per hour, but includes routes on the UW-Madison campus, which are always full, he said.

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“If a few hundred a day when ramped up, that would be superb,” he said of the Sun Prairie route.

Demand is there

Metro spokesman Mick Rusch said the system has long gotten calls asking whether buses go to Sun Prairie, which, with 33,974 people, is the second-largest municipality in Dane County and the second-fastest growing in the state.

The 2020 cost of the service is about $385,000 with Sun Prairie paying about $128,000 of that and the rest covered by the state, fare revenue and other sources, according to Gritzmacher. The city will pay a pro-rated amount for 2019. While survey respondents said they would pay as much as $3.16 a ride, Metro’s standard $2 fare will apply on the route.

Beck said that in setting the cost of service for routes outside of Madison, Metro takes into account factors including how many hours the service is in operation, whether it’s a peak-hours or all-day service, state and federal funding, farebox revenue, and that all rates are set under the same formula.

“We break even with the municipalities sharing the local cost for it,” he said.

Sun Prairie is also spending close to half a million dollars to build a 73-stall park-and-ride with a shelter, landscaping and security cameras at O’Keeffe Avenue and Reiner Road.

Down the road

One of Metro’s top priorities in the coming years is the creation of a bus rapid transit system, a high-frequency, high-capacity, limited-stop service that would run on city streets and dedicated lanes.

But Beck said there are some holes in current coverage that he’d like to fill as well, such as limited service on East Washington Avenue.

Esser said he’d eventually like to see Metro offer intracity Sun Prairie routes, and Beck said Metro is open to further expansion but that it will be difficult without a regional transit authority, or RTA, that can levy taxes for transit improvements. Republicans who have controlled the Legislature since 2011 have been hostile to RTAs.

“In my mind, Metro Transit should be looked at as the transportation provider for all of Dane County,” Esser said, and that absent an RTA, memorandums of understanding with communities can be used to bring in Metro service.

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