Two years ago, the regional body that runs public transit around the Minneapolis area had a problem that might sound familiar to D.C.-area Metro riders.

Restaurant and cafe workers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport were struggling to get to work in time for their 4 a.m. shifts. Buses and light rail trains to the airport don’t run that early.

The unconventional partnership that followed could be a model for Metro and other transit agencies facing the same problem. The Metropolitan Council, the government agency that runs transit in the Twin Cities region, created a program for employers at the airport to voluntarily chip in for more bus service.

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Under the program, Transit Link, a Metropolitan Council van service that during the day reaches areas of the region underserved by transit, now takes airport workers to and from home and work. It’s similar to “microtransit” programs D.C. is piloting to take people between places that lack frequent bus service.

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Employees using Transit Link pay a $3.50 fare. Eight of the airport’s employers agreed to pay the other $3.50 fare for each trip their workers take. The Metropolitan Council budgeted $300,000 to pick up the rest of the cost. Roughly 8,000 trips ran between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019, according to a Metropolitan Council spokesman.

“It’s a win-win for employers and employees,” Nick Thompson, the Minneapolis agency’s director of Metropolitan Transportation Services, said in an interview.

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Metro in the D.C. region stays open until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday and no later than 11:30 p.m. the rest of the week. It used to run until midnight on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends, until Metro made cuts in June 2017.

Metro’s current hours have been criticized by unions representing late-night and early-morning workers, and by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has been pushing for trains to operate later. Metro’s board in March opted against restoring later hours, arguing the change would interfere with overnight maintenance work.

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Transit agencies nationally are struggling to serve late-shift workers, according to an American Public Transportation Association study released Wednesday. One solution the report offers is for transit agencies to mimic Minneapolis — ask the businesses that would benefit from late-night service to pay for it.

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By offering reduced hours or no service after midnight, transit agencies are failing to serve those who most need public transit, APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas said Wednesday on a call with reporters.

At least 17% of workers in U.S. metropolitan areas work late shifts, arriving to work between 4 p.m. and 6 a.m., the report says. A disproportionate number of those workers are minorities and don’t earn much money.

“While people of color represent 39 percent of the U.S.’s daytime workforce, they account for 45 percent of evening and early-morning workers and 52 percent of late-night workers,” the group’s report says.

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"The $30,000 annual median wage for late-shift workers is $5,000 lower than that of daytime workers,” the report says. But with few public transportation options, those workers have little choice but to own cars, which on average cost 30% of their annual earnings.

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As a result, the report says, “high transportation costs lead to greater financial stress on late-shift workers or exclude potential workers from taking advantage of late-shift jobs.”

Employers also have a stake, the report says. Areas where public transportation is available late have less employee turnover. Workers with access to public transportation are also less likely to miss work or show up late.

It’s unclear if D.C-area businesses with late-night workers would be willing to pick up part of the tab. “We’d have to look at it,” Laura Abshire, the National Restaurant Association’s director of food and sustainability policy, said during the press call. A spokeswoman for the association’s D.C. chapter declined comment.

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The Hotel Association of Washington and the DC Chamber of Commerce did not return requests for comment.

In a statement, Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said, “Metro agrees that supporting late-night workers is an important priority. Metrobus currently provides more than 3,000 trips each day during the overnight hours, and provides near-around-the-clock service on 17 essential bus routes in the region on weekdays (24 routes on Saturdays).”

The APTA report also called for expanding local and federal funding to improve late-night services, and for agencies to explore partnerships with rideshare companies.

Metro has already taken that step with a pilot program to subsidize $3 for Lyft trips late-night workers take to or from work. Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said 175 people have signed up for the program, which opened for applications on July 1.

“At this point, it is too early to draw conclusions with only two months of data,” Jannetta said. “However, the program continues to add new participants each month.”

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