Why I Agree with Saint Paul on the B-Line

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The 54 bus today, it looks just fine by me.

Recently, Ramsey County and Saint Paul joined forces to delay the opening of the B-Line, to coordinate transit studies, ranging from the Riverview study to a streetcar study and this arterial-“BRT” (a.k.a. faux Bus Rapid Transit) study. This was a good move for the city and transit users. Due to changes to the 54 since the line was initially planned, and the low return on investment the B-line will provide, Saint Paul and Ramsey County are being smart delaying the process at this time.

Why aBRT?

This type of “BRT” is meant to be used in corridors without the space, demand, and development opportunities for other modes to be worth the investment, or even be plausible improvements for the corridor. West 7th, along which the B-Line would run, is already a heavily used transit corridor, and had been a candidate for light rail or full BRT until 2002, when the legislature used the funding for the corridor to balance the state budget, and expansions of the corridor near downtown Saint Paul seemed to have little support from neighboring businesses. The line ran entirely along West 7th during this stage of planning.

aBRT was selected for this corridor, seemingly as a consolation prize for Saint Paul. While a direct connection between downtown and the airport/ Megadale would be feasible for a higher capacity transit service (transfers downtown from the east side especially), the difficulty in getting one built caused Metro Transit to decide to do something, anything, for this corridor in the meantime. The aBRT would have provided more frequent service, and (slightly) faster running times, when it was planned.

Why not aBRT?

The first reason for aBRT not being a good investment is the travel-time savings that the service provides are negligible. Currently, during evening rush hour, the 54 runs every twelve minutes, and has a 36 minute trip time, for its entire length. With aBRT the service can be improved to ten minute headways, and travel time can be reduced by two minutes. Let me say that again, travel times can be reduced by two minutes. If I were to arrive at one end of the route, immediately after a bus pulled away, my total time savings to ride to the other end of the route would be a total of four minutes, less than ten percent of the total time. For comparison, the A-line has a total time savings of 18 minutes, and no other planned route for aBRT has as little improvement as the B-Line in travel time savings.

The reason for such little travel time improvement is largely due to the fact that the 54 is already a limited stop route. Even where the stops are closer together and the 54 currently provides local service, no stops are being eliminated for aBRT. Maintaining the current route, along the current alignment, with no change in stop location. That does not sound like a transit improvement, it sounds like new paint on a current bus.

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This is a very important stop. How else are you to access… the forest?

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Ok, so we really need to save this stop?

The improved stops that aBRT can offer also do not contribute much to this route. Along West 7th there are already heated, lighted shelters at bus stops with large numbers of boardings. Instead of rebuilding these structures, what if a ticket machine was added to facilitate boardings, eliminating the need to pay in cash and instead using a transfer that was already bought?

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These shelters are very nice right now, why not keep them?

Several other routes evaluated rated much higher for aBRT implementation. Of the weighted scores used to evaluate and schedule the system’s implementation, the West 7th line placed tenth out of the twelve routes studied. Above only Robert Street and East 7th, West 7th ranks below improving American Boulevard’s service. The main reason these other routes were passed over was that they were already being studied for other transit improvements at the time, Hennepin Avenue had a bus study underway, American Boulevard was being delayed to wait for more ridership from the 542 bus to warrant improvements, and the rest of the corridors? They were being studied by Minneapolis for streetcars. The routes were not taken further, not studied, because Minneapolis might try to make the lines into streetcars. When Saint Paul announced its plan to study streetcar routes shortly thereafter, instead of trying to make a cohesive study and evaluate the options, Metro Transit went ahead with the A and B-lines. While the A-Line’s route has been eliminated from Saint Paul’s streetcar studies, the B-Line overlaps heavily with the city’s streetcar starter corridor, and Ramsey County’s Regional Railroad Authority (RCRRA) has restarted studies on the Riverview Corridor for rapid transit. While Minneapolis’ study did come out first, Metro Transit’s second, and Saint Paul’s third, everyone should stop and think for a moment, “Is this really needed? Can we combine parts of these studies? Maybe we should all cooperate instead of just calling dibs on lines and acting as if that is the be all end all of the discussion.”

But if not aBRT what about right now?

I don’t see why only aBRT can improve the headways by two minutes, why not do this now? Why not add an express bus from downtown to the airport via Shepard Road? We can build ridership and measure possible demand for aBRT and Rapid Transit while spending minimal capital costs. Could we ever get light rail to the airport? Maybe, eventually, and it’d have to be an express service, (along a rail line, anyone?). But we cannot let our desire for any transit improvement allow us to spend money where it isn’t needed and won’t help.

In Conclusion

aBRT has better corridors to be implemented on.

Developments after the release of Metro Transit’s report have changed the criteria that the report was based on.

Due to the limited stop nature of the 54, aBRT does not eliminate any stops along all of the current 54 route, which means that time savings are minimal.

Saint Paul and Ramsey County are doing studies on the corridor for other modes already, maybe these studies/planning can be combined, or at least recognize each other exist.

Do we really want a new fancy million dollar paintjob on some buses instead of just adding one bus per hour? (12 minute headways = 5 buses per hour, 10 minute headways = 6 buses per hour)

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It’d still be more useful and a lot cheaper than the Red Line, but that’s not saying much


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16 Responses to Why I Agree with Saint Paul on the B-Line

  1. Alex August 1, 2014 at 10:00 am #

    The worst thing about St Paul/Ramsey County’s move to block the B Line is that, as you note, just about every other aBRT corridor has some kind of other transit improvement planned. This means that every corridor has the potential to be blocked for the same reason. This means we’re stuck with subpar transit until someone stops studying all these streetcars and actually tries to build one (a move that is unprecedented in the Twin Cities). Building aBRT is a cheap, easy first step that should be taken on all of the identified corridors as soon as possible.

    • Matt Steele August 1, 2014 at 10:11 am #

      Absolutely. My concern is that this will lead to an either/or for Greenway LRTrolley / Lake Street ABRT because we can’t have both in the same corridor. Many parallels to the West 7th/Riverview situation.

    • Joseph Totten
      Joseph Totten August 1, 2014 at 11:28 am #

      Many of those other corridors have been removed already. Penn Avenue and others in Minneapolis no longer have streetcar studies being performed. (Granted, it’s the C-Line), but those higher value corridors have come to a point where we can settle on the mode and move forward.

      • Alex August 1, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

        Fair enough, there are only two lines left to be built because this type of myopia has caused the rest of them to be put on hold. Take Hennepin for example, which isn’t being delayed because a bus study is underway, but rather because a bus study is planned to be done sometime before SWLRT is built. This deadline keeps getting pushed further and further back, of course, and meanwhile there’s real demand for aBRT improvements on Hennepin right now. It’s next to impossible to imagine a bus plan involving Hennepin that would not include aBRT-type improvements, and similarly any streetcar built on these corridors would use the majority of the infrastructure built for aBRT. Therefore, the possible future construction of streetcar in a corridor is not a valid reason to delay implementation of aBRT.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke August 1, 2014 at 2:15 pm #

      Important clarification is that the Ramsey County study isn’t necessarily a streetcar study. The city’s streetcar study was separate from the already existing Ramsey County study. I.e. there are three separate “studies” / processes going on on the same street at the same time through three different government bodies (county, city, and met council). I’ve heard they’re coordinating, but who knows…

  2. Matt Steele August 1, 2014 at 10:00 am #

    aBRT should be our standard level of service for local bus routes. It should just be “the bus” and normal. We should get to that point as quickly as possible. It is by far the best bang for the buck in terms of improving transit quality. For the cost of one Southwest LRT (to suburbs which are built in a form fundamentally incompatible with transit) we could upgrade nearly 70 local bus routes (do we have that many?) to aBRT standards assuming they all cost roughly the same as the A line on Snelling.

    One way to actually make the Red Line slightly more valuable than not-valuable-at-all would be to interline it with BRT on West 7th, providing a one-seat ride from Cedar corridor park&rides to downtown St. Paul via MOA/Airport.

  3. Matt Brillhart August 1, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

    What length of delay for future improvements is acceptable? 5 years? 10 years? 15 years actually seems optimistic for a rail operation in the Riverview Corridor. Even then, you’d still want enhanced bus service on West 7th proper to supplement the less-walkable rail corridor, beyond the no-frills limited-stop route 54.

    What if nothing becomes of the transit study or federal funding does not materialize to build rail? I’d rather “waste” $25-30MM on West 7th today for service in 2016 than wait another 5 or 10 years to do it if the rail line never materializes.

    You’ve pointed out very well that the B-Line doesn’t represent as great a leap in transit service as the other potential arterial corridors, given that it already has the frequency and limited stop nature, along with serviceable shelters. The amount of money planned to be spent on the B-Line is so minuscule (in terms of transit investment) that it cannot possibly be deemed a “waste”. The B-Line should be built precisely because it is cheap, can be deployed quickly, and BONUS: it will grow transit demand in the corridor while more expensive modes are studied, argued over ad nauseam, and maybe, maybe one day actually built.

    • Joseph Totten
      Joseph Totten August 1, 2014 at 10:07 pm #

      I don’t think SWLRT is really a good stick to measure with, no matter what you’re trying to measure.

      Yes, building 70 of these would be awesome, let’s do it! Every stop for any local bus has a bumpout, a 9″ curb, and if it’d qualify for a shelter with the 40 boardings a day let’s put one in, as well as a ticket vending machine. We’ll have fare checks, but you have a machine on the bus too, to serve stops with low ridership. Unfortunately, that’s not what will ever happen. The Twin Cities will not improve every bus. So in the queue of bus improvements, let’s wait until the J-Line to put one down West 7th (J is the tenth letter of the alphabet right? If anyone else can check that for me please do). Heck, I’d let it be the I or H or even G.

      Also, if I were to wave a wand and make a Riverview Corridor train exist, how would newer shelters make the 54 better? You aBRT is not a luxury, frill filled service, so how would this be better than 10 minute headways in Saint Paul? (you wouldn’t have to repeat the route in Bloomington, so the 54 could go to a local route, which would actually provide circulation.)

    • Joseph Totten
      Joseph Totten August 1, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

      Sorry I combined Matts in the response.

  4. Aaron Isaacs
    Aaron Isaacs August 1, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

    Matt hit it on the nose. This is a quick and inexpensive way to upgrade Route 54’s brand and visibility, improving what is already a well-patronised, quality service. Hopefully this will make the route more attractive for “choice” riders heading to the airport. Given the modest cost, this doesn’t preclude other BRT improvements elsewhere.

    People forget that about 15 years ago BRT on an exclusive right of way in 7th Street was studied. There was a terrific community backlash when the study recommended removing most of the on-street parking and even demolishing buildings to fit in the BRT lanes. Why would anyone want to revisit that? Route 54 running in mixed traffic was the fallback option and it has worked quite well.

    • Joseph Totten
      Joseph Totten August 1, 2014 at 9:58 pm #

      Why are we even calling it “BRT”? It’s not, it’s making buses better, so why not start on a system with corner bumpouts at every stop, far side stops at lights, 9″ curb instead of 6″ where ever plausible, and ticket machines where multiple boardings at a time is common? Why call these things “aBRT” and not just say “we’re improving the buses”. Is the marketing and branding that important? Add another bus to the 54 every hour, add a few bumpouts, but do we need to spend ~$25 million? I know public works can cost a lot, but it’s about $20,000 per neighborhood traffic circle, and $300,000 for a bus. By my estimation, 2 more buses and a bumpout at every stop should fit into $2 million pretty easily.

      I think they are revisiting the CP rail corridor, streetcar-LRT when it gets to adequate Right Of Way, and Shepard Road. Not really revisiting demolishing the area to put down a rapid transit.

      I would also like to clarify, I am a transit nerd. I want to see improvements. This is the reason Penn should be the B-Line and West 7th should wait until the J-Line or so to be built. We should work to actually make transit better, not brand the bus as “not actually a bus”.

      • Anne August 3, 2014 at 11:57 pm #

        You’d think Saint Paul would have a vested interest in the marketing and branding of an improved line NOW vs. in 15 years. The 54 route is the weak side of the triangle connecting the airport and both downtown zones, and there IS something intimidating and unappealing about taking a normal bus if you’re not familiar with the transit system.

        Even if the times aren’t improved much by BRT conversion, the overall experience should be nicer and more user-friendly. Yes, add a bus each hour. Add the automated audio and visual “next stop” announcements so riders don’t have to depend on the driver to clearly announce what’s coming up. Allow boarding at the back, which would make stops like Maynard Drive, the airport, and MoA faster.

        I don’t know if the city just banks on everyone important taking an airport taxi to get downtown, but it’s embarrassing that the main connection is just a “normal” bus when there are reasonable upgrades within reach.

  5. John August 5, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

    To Joseph’s question and Anne’s statement, yes, marketing and branding absolutely is important. I work in downtown St. Paul and know of many out-of-towners who rent a car or take a taxi when doing work and staying in downtown St. Paul; I know very few who rode Route 54. Implementing a branded service with specific bus graphics and overall marketing as part of a system removes the stigma that many feel about riding “just a bus” and the concern that the bus may not go where they expect.

    • Nathanael August 8, 2014 at 2:32 am #

      Sorry, as an out-of-towner who visits, I can say it won’t help. It’s still a bus, with all the problems associated with it, and a bunch of paint and branding isn’t going to help much. Put in a rail line and I would take it. As it is, I may take the ludicrously indirect route through Minneapolis by rail… because of level boarding and the smoother ride and less motion-sickness of rail. Or I may get a taxi.

  6. Pat Lindgren August 19, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

    I took the 16 bus one time to the Amtrak station. I got out to the bus stop in plenty of time. But the bus was late. Then because it was late, there were a lot more people who got on and off, making it even later. I missed my train – and I started out in time to make it there. I was taking taxis before that experiment, and I am taking taxis now. It doesn’t matter if you spend $25 million making curb bump-outs and let me buy a ticket at a kiosk. Buses sometimes run into delays and are late. That is life, and I need to get to the train (or airplane) on time. The only way to make sure that happens is to take a taxi. P.S. I’m pretty sure that a 2 minute faster ride from downtown to the airport is going to coax me out of a taxi.

    • Pat Lindgren August 19, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

      is *not* going to coax me out of a taxi.