Bloomington to Apple Valley Red Line bus service opens tomorrow

Apple Valley Transit Station seen during Red Line construction in October 2012.

Apple Valley Transit Station seen during Red Line construction in October 2012. (Mike Hicks)

The Twin Cities is welcoming a new transit service on Saturday: The METRO Red Line bus service along Cedar Avenue from the Mall of America in Bloomington to the eponymous Apple Valley Transit Station. The 10-mile route will have five stops: Aside from the endpoints, it also hits Cedar Grove Transit Station at Nicols Road and Cedar Grove Parkway in Eagan, and two additional stations along Cedar Avenue in Apple Valley near 140th Street and 147th Street, respectively. The route will have 15-minute headways between buses from 5 am to 7 pm on weekdays—It almost qualifies as a member of the region’s Hi-Frequency Network, but falls short on Saturdays where frequency is only every half hour (Hi-Frequency routes are supposed to have 15-minute Saturday service from 9 am to 6 pm).

Have you gotten that sinking feeling yet?

The Red Line, formerly known as the Cedar Avenue Bus Rapid Transitway, has been championed as a pilot of BRT service in the Twin Cities.  BRT, of course, is often brought out as an alternative for potential rail projects—usually light rail or subway/elevated “heavy rail”, but sometimes an option against commuter rail or streetcar service. It was a technology born out of necessity in poor Latin American countries. City planners sought out ways to optimize their disorganized bus systems (which often were—and still are—run by a number of independent companies) rather than building expensive railways. It is a technology which has since spread around the world.

BRT was invented when dedicated busways were combined with specially-designed stations which matched the buses’ floor height, allowing level boarding. The stations also allowed passengers to use the normally wasted time in between buses to purchase tickets ahead of time. The buses themselves were usually articulated (sometimes double-articulated), with a larger number of wider doorways—in some cases on the “wrong” side or on both sides of buses so that boarding platforms could be constructed in the center median of a busway.

Unfortunately, as the idea of bus rapid transit spread, it was often watered down—especially as implemented in the United States. Proper dedicated lanes terminate before reaching congested areas. Routes get implemented with unnecessary loops or one-way sections. Pre-paid boarding gets cut, requiring passengers to waste time fumbling for cards, bills, and change as they step onto the buses. The Red Line has not been immune from those trends.

First, it is difficult to say whether the Red Line has a dedicated busway or not—strictly speaking, I would have to say no.  Buses will travel in the right-hand shoulder lanes, an extension of the of bus-only shoulder program that has been implemented on 300 miles of roads across the Twin Cities.  Buses will have to deal with right-turning vehicles sharing the surface segment of Cedar Avenue through the heart of Apple Valley. The route has implemented transit signal priority at intersections, which should help keep traffic flowing, but there will still be turbulence in places where cars and buses share space. The freeway segment of the route has a speed limit of 65 mph, and buses also have to mingle with regular traffic at on- and off-ramps.

Cedar Avenue is very wide now, able to maintain a 2+1+2 configuration even with half the road surface under construction.

Cedar Avenue is very wide now, able to maintain a 2+1+2 configuration even with half the road surface under construction. (Photo: Mike Hicks)

Second on my list of Red Line issues is station placement: The Cedar Grove station is only accessible via surface streets, adding 3 minutes or more to northbound trips and at least 5 minutes to southbound trips. New ways of accessing the station are undergoing a year-long study process, but it’s not clear when this major defect will be fixed. To the south, the 140th and 147th Street stations are being opened without any skyway connections across the wide highway, unlike AVTS as seen in the first photo, and they are not well located right at intersections with crosswalks. Other potentially valuable stations are completely missing, such as one which had been proposed at the Palomino Hills park-and-ride, one of the more densely-populated residential nodes along the highway which could benefit from better access to commercial zones along the route.

Another component that’s currently missing is off-board pre-payment. The Apple Valley Transit Station has ticket vending machines (TVMs) installed for the start of service, but they are not yet installed at the intermediate stops along the route, and the Mall of America stop seems to be relying on existing machines used for the Blue Line (Hiawatha LRT). Ideally the Red Line will soon behave just like the Blue Line, where everyone onboard must carry a transfer or validated pass as proof of payment. However, it appears the line will require to pay or validate their fares upon boarding until machines are deployed to all stops.

The Red Line is an interesting experiment in the effort to make bus service better. While significant pieces are missing, fixes are at least in the pipeline. We’ll see how long they take to arrive. The biggest challenge of all will involve finding new ways to overcome the suburban geography of the route, where pod-like developments are spread through the square-mile sections laid out by surveyors in the 19th century. Will this type of busway offer a way to balance out the natural tendency of car traffic to pile up along section-line roads?

It is worth noting that express bus service in the corridor has been expanding for several years already, to destinations including downtown Minneapolis, downtown Saint Paul, the University of Minnesota, and the Mall of America. The Red Line offers the first true station-to-station service along the highway, consistently making the same stops throughout the day.

Here’s a breakdown of the corridor’s $112 million budget:

  • $57 million for 4 miles of highway and bus shoulder improvements.
  • $34 million for express service expansion, including vehicles and facilities.
  • $21 million for Red Line service, including vehicles and facilities.

Check out my Flickr set of Red Line photos. Are you planning to try the Red Line? Let us know in the comments.


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19 Responses to Bloomington to Apple Valley Red Line bus service opens tomorrow

  1. Matt Steele June 21, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    $57 million for 4 miles of highway and bus shoulder improvements.

    So this should really be $55 million in transit improvements, and $57 in transit-funded highway capacity improvements and deferred maintenance on Dakota CSAH 23.

  2. Bill Roehl June 21, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    It does nothing to alter the current state of transit in the south suburbs. We already had rarely used MoA service and heavily used express service to Mpls/StP. The outcome of the low ridership the line will see is the reduce or eliminate the express service options forcing adoption of the BRT line.

    BRT will add about 45 mins to the average express trip to downtown Mpls and inundates an area with already underused service along a trunk transit line which doesn’t solve the single biggest issue: there is inadequate feeder service to get people to the Line in the first place

    This is a massive failure and will never reach the potential those who champion it continue to believe it will.

    • Matt Steele June 21, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

      I think it’s awesome that urban transit folks and suburbanites and everyone else agree that this is a waste of money. It’s just unfortunate that Apple Valley, Met Council, and Dakota County officials are still championing it.

      • Bill Roehl June 21, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

        They touted Bus 2.0 for years even though it was expensive, useless, and universally distrusted by the drivers forced to adopt it. That closed system developed and run by UMN refused open information requests and colluded with the MVTA to hide driver distrust and system issues from the public in order to continue to receive funding for a program which was a useless failure from the start.

        Suburban BRT is following in the same footsteps and will eventually fail but because of the even higher cost and the larger visibility will force the fix I laid out above. While the politicians and public administrators will continue to hope and pray for development along the line like LRT saw in Mpls, this system will end up a bigger overall failure than Bus 2.0 proved to be.

        15 min intervals to go to the MoA during the weekdays when no one wants to go there and 30 min intervals during the weekends when people do. My favorite is the Cedar Grove transit station being built next to the future location of a 7 million dollar (public funds) which will be dedicated to an outlet mall. Guess which will see more use on any given day?

        • Matt Steele June 21, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

          The only silver lining I can imagine is that this boondoggle forces MVTA to fold and get absorbed by Metro Transit.

          • Bill Roehl June 21, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

            I see nothing good about that option at all.

            • Matt Steele June 21, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

              You do have a point in that the issue is the practice of pandering to suburban parochialism and the idea that suburbs deserve quality transit to the degree that urban areas do, not necessarily an issue of which agency is doing the pandering.

  3. Alex June 21, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

    Thank you for conscientiously avoiding labeling the Red Line BRT, which it certainly isn’t. I’m just afraid that the imbeciles eager to trumpet this as BRT don’t damage the brand the way Northstar did commuter rail (though of course Northstar was technically well-implemented, unlike the Red Line, just not in the right place). Hopefully the Met Council will do a better job with the Orange Line and will thereby redeem the phrase, doomed to ignominy with this freeway project masquerading as a transit improvement.

  4. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke June 21, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    I share everyone’s doubts here. But I think it’s worth stating that proper urban BRT (e.g. the proposed Snelling route) would be tremendous.

  5. Beta Magellan June 21, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    “It was a technology born out of necessity in poor Latin American countries.”

    This isn’t quite the case—BRT as a “surface metro” substitute for subway or light rail originates in Latin America, but highway-based bus rapid transit is, I believe, an American invention. As early as 1958 ( http://www.chicago-l.org/plans/images/NewHorizons/SouthwestBusway.jpg ) the CTA was favoring a dedicated busway in the middle of the Stevenson Expressway for southwest Chicago transit (in a rare reversal of the typical process, it spent a couple of decades pinging around transit plans before becoming a heavy rail line running along railway ROW, the Orange Line). The Red Line strikes me as a beefed-up (in terms of infrastructure, not usefulness) version of bus-on-shoulder, which I believe was introduced in Seattle circa 1970. Although Red Line boosters may invoke the likes of Curitiba or Bogotá because they’re big ridership successes, the actual genealogy of the Red Line is rather different.

    (Also, how much does it suck that such a strong color as red is wasted on some peripheral, barely-frequent feeder line?)

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 21, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

      My vote goes to “The Mauve Line.”

    • Jeremy Bergerson June 22, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

      Couldn’t agree more on the color red’s wastedness and how bad it sucks that it’s applied to a marginal line serving a marginal area. Oh well, when we get another METRO rail line at some point, maybe we can do what Daley did and allow school children to choose a color; then we’ll have our own Pink Line.

  6. Sam Rockwell
    Sam June 21, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    I work in Eagan and currently bike to work everyday from Uptown Minneapolis. My current bus options are pretty bleak since the bus/LRT trip takes a good half hour to 45 minutes longer than my already long bike ride. Unfortunately, this new “BRT” does not significantly alter my commute because, although it stops in Eagan, there is nothing to take me the last two-plus miles to work from the Cedar Grove Station. We should have spent this money on real improvements to the transit network in the cities — we need to create more zones where people can live without a car and depend on reliable hi-frequency transit.

  7. Jeremy Bergerson June 21, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

    The only problem I have with this is its name. By calling it the METRO Red Line, it puts the line on a par with the Blue Line or Green Line, which are true rapid transit, while this is clearly some kind of souped-up express bus service. If it fails, and according to Bill it will, I sure hope its implosion doesn’t blight the good name of the proper METRO lines that exist in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

    And no, this is most definitely not BRT. Even the Snelling Line, which I am very excited about, is pretty watered down for BRT (though not as watery as the CTA’s Jeffrey Jump). Gold-standard BRT will, as far as I know, only exist on Ashland Ave in Chicago, once the NIMBYs quit arguing about the line.

    • Beta Magellan June 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

      The HealthLine (Euclid Avenue BRT) probably also counts, though its station spacing’s pretty short due to local concerns over loss of stops. Still, it has a very high amenity level, with separated lanes, sheltered median stations, and a lot of nice streetscaping to boot.

    • Alex June 23, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

      While I agree with most of what you’re saying, I think it’s a stretch to call the Red or Blue Line ‘rapid transit’, considering they both have substantial segments when they’re slower than a car or parallel local bus service.

      • Alex June 24, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

        I’m sorry, I mean the Blue or Green lines aren’t real rapid transit. These colors are tough for me to keep straight, I prefer proper names.

  8. Xan June 22, 2013 at 9:47 am #

    “With operating costs of $3.2 million a year, what kind of ridership will make BRT a success?

    The Met Council projects weekday ridership of 975 in the first year of operation and 1,600 by 2017.”
    http://www.startribune.com/local/212427361.html

    3.2 million divided by 1600×365 equals $5.48 per ride.

    The answer is 4383 passengers per day to equal the fare (ave. $2), if that’s how you measure success. If you measure it by development, I don’t think BRT to an outlet mall is going to draw conventions to the Cities. Housing? I can’t imaging why anyone would live in Apple Valley, BRT or not. If it went to the zoo…

  9. Bill Roehl June 24, 2013 at 10:33 am #

    This is not BRT, it’s simply limited stop service from AVTS to MOA: http://www.lazylightning.org/the-red-line-and-mvtas-customer-service-sucks