The North Minneapolis-Southwest LRT Connection

The Southwest Corridor will dramatically improve the transit connection between North Minneapolis and the southwest suburbs. Today, if a Northside resident wants to travel to Hopkins, a one transfer bus ride is available during rush hour every 20 minutes, and it takes 46 minutes to get there from the corner of North 7th Street & Olson Memorial Highway. During off-peak hours, that same trip takes three buses and about an hour. Travel to Minnetonka and Eden Prairie is even less convenient. Light rail transit (LRT) will shorten the trip to Hopkins to 23 minutes, with 10 minute frequencies and much more availability during many more hours of the day. That opens up all sorts of employment opportunities for Northside residents.

The recent calls for a good transit connection between North Minneapolis and the Southwest Corridor LRT have revealed a misunderstanding of what transit service exists today and how best to make that connection.

Advocates have demanded bus service to the proposed Penn Avenue and Van White Boulevard Stations, while ignoring the real connecting point, Royalston Station. The purpose of this post is to:

  1. Explain why the Royalston connection offers the best service at the lowest cost.
  2. Explain why creating new bus service to the Penn and Van White Stations won’t save travel time and won’t be economically viable.
  3. Suggest how the Royalston connection location could be improved.

Bus Service to Royalston Station

Most of North Minneapolis is served by three major bus routes:

  • Route 5 on Emerson and Fremont Avenues
  • Route 19 on Penn Avenue
  • Route 22 on Lyndale Avenue

Routes 5, 19, and 22 funnel through the intersection of North 7th Street & Olson Memorial Highway, just north of downtown. They pass near the Southwest Corridor’s planned Royalston Station, located on Royalston Avenue a block south of Olson Memorial Highway.

All three North Minneapolis bus routes run seven days a week. Routes 5 and 19 run 24 hours a day, and Route 22 runs from 4:30 AM to 1:30 AM. Here are the service frequencies, in minutes:

M-F PeakM-F MiddayM-F NightSaturdaySunday
Route 55-107.510-151010-15
Route 198-151015-201520-30
Route 2211-152020-302030

This service package, one of the best in the metro area, has an annual value of about $20 million dollars. Using it to connect to the Southwest Corridor at Royalston will cost nothing because it’s already in place.

What buses would serve Penn Avenue or Van White?

The vague concept of running buses to the Penn and Van White stations requires some specifics to be judged as either a good or bad idea. Which neighborhoods would they serve?

Let’s start with the only bus that runs anywhere near the two stations, half a mile away. It’s Route 9 Glenwood Avenue-Bryn Mawr. Metro Transit policy is not to divert a bus route unless the diversion will serve a substantial percentage of the passengers. There’s really no chance that transfers to Southwest will amount to even 10 percent of Route 9’s passengers, so that diversion won’t happen. However, Route 9 also runs within two blocks of the Royalston Station. That’s a diversion that could be justified.

Any buses running through North Minneapolis would use Penn Avenue and/or Fremont Avenue, since they are the major north-south arterial streets. It would seem logical that a Penn Avenue route would serve the Penn station and a Fremont Avenue route would serve the Van White station. Both routes would probably extend at least as far north as 44th Avenue.

Penn Avenue

The current Route 19 runs on Penn from 44th Avenue N. to Olson Highway, then east for 1 mile to the Royalston station. There’s no question that it is somewhat indirect, compared to continuing straight ahead on Penn to the Penn station. Assuming a 5-minute transfer between bus and LRT, a new bus route to the Penn station will save about 3 minutes of travel time compared to transferring at the Royalston station. Travel time via Penn Avenue will be 9 minutes, including the transfer. Via Royalston it will be 12 minutes.

In order to save those three minutes, an entire new bus route would have to be created. At a minimum, that would require at least a 30-minute frequency around the clock, with some additional rush hour service. It would cost about $2 million per year. However, most of the connecting riders would still use Route 19, because it runs every 10 minutes and will connect with every train. A 3-minute travel time advantage is meaningless if it requires waiting an extra 20 minutes for a direct bus to Penn station.

To compete for riders, the new Penn route would have to run as often as Route 19. That would cost $5 million a year and the result would be a lot of buses carrying a handful of passengers per trip at most. Such a route would run high subsidies that would greatly exceed Metro Transit’s subsidy per passenger ceiling. Any transit planner will tell you that’s a foregone conclusion because there aren’t enough LRT transfers to support a separate high frequency route. Using the existing Route 19 will cost nothing extra and will connect with every LRT trip.

Fremont or Lyndale Avenue

A new Fremont Avenue or Lyndale Avenue bus route to the Van White station will save no travel time at all. Route 5 via Royalston station doesn’t subject riders to any indirect routing. Transfers from Route 5 at Royalston or creating a new route to Van White station will take exactly the same number of minutes. But a new route will add yet another $5 million to the cost.

Royalston’s location needs some rethinking
The Royalston station’s proposed location a long block south of Olson Highway makes the bus transfer less convenient than it should be. It’s about a 2-block walk from the existing bus stops at 7th and Olson.

Ideally the station would be located on a bridge over N. 7th Street, similar to the Hiawatha Line’s Lake Street station. That would also permit the station to serve the future Bottineau Boulevard line, before it splits from Southwest.

Other alternatives are to divert the buses via Royalston, which will slow them somewhat, or to add stops on 7th Street at 5th Avenue N., next to Caring & Sharing Hands. The latter would require pedestrian crossing signals to be safe and it would still be a one block walk to the station.

It’s important to note that the Royalston connection is also a better connection to the airport, Mall of America, U of M and the other LRT destinations within Minneapolis and St. Paul. Because the North Minneapolis buses run through downtown on 7th and 8th Streets, the current transfer to LRT on 5th Street requires a 2-3 block walk. Why not have a more convenient transfer at Royalston instead?

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.

13 thoughts on “The North Minneapolis-Southwest LRT Connection

  1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Nice post, Aaron. Minor quibble, I don’t think the current bus stops at Olsen and 7th are “just a block” from the Royalston Station location: Current/future pedestrian access maps show the bus stops just within the 10 minute walk-shed today: And that probably doesn’t include added time waiting to cross Olsen Memorial if getting off the southbound 5.

    Not saying bus routes down to Van White or Penn Stations make sense – Royalston is certainly the optimal transfer point for a 3A SWLRT. I think much of the debate centers (centered?) around the false premise that 3A serves the North side while other route options didn’t. I’m not advocating for this (it’s done, too late, just putting forward the logic), but in a 3C world, traveling another few stops further into downtown by bus (which would hopefully be sped up even further by Penn and Fremont-Chicago aBRT improvements, potential W Broadway streetcar/aBRT as well) would have yielded the same single transfer situation for Northsiders (with a slightly longer total trip time via a couple more minutes into downtown plus longer travel time out to the suburbs using a 3C routing).

    Finally, the MOA and Airport would require another transfer if getting on the SWLRT at Royalston since the Green Line chugs along to the U and beyond. This penalty may make the walk worth it by just busing into downtown. (especially since the xfer to Royalston requires some walking anyway).

    But again, nice, detailed post – thanks!

  2. David Greene

    Aaron, thanks for the thorough analysis. A couple of points I disagree with and/or don’t understand:

    We’re already building a new route on Penn – the aBRT. It seems completely stupid for that route to turn onto Olson and duplicate Bottineau service. Sending it to Penn would make a faster connection to SWLRT and there’s a freeway entrance right there to shuttle people downtown. I don’t understand why Metro Transit insists that routing the Penn aBRT that way would make the ride for people heading downtown so much worse.

    I also don’t understand how a basically straight shot down Fremont and Van White can take the same amount of time as diverting east to Royalston and then back out along SWLRT. I can see maybe it’s faster to run along 7th due to the design of the street. I’m honestly less concerned about connections to Van White from points further north than connections to Penn. The Van White station is really about development potential and bringing economic activity to distressed neighborhoods as far as the Northside is concerned. Beyond that, it’s a nice connection to the Basilica and the Loring Park area.

  3. David Greene

    Even sending the Penn aBRT down Glenwood would be a better idea than running it on Olson. Glenwood is a forgotten commercial corridor that needs some love.

  4. David Greene

    Or as suggested by Tcmetro on UrbanMSP, have the BRT run downtown (via Glenwood) and reroute the 19 from Robbinsdale transit center to the Penn SWLRT station, and possibly on to the West End via Wayzata Blvd.

  5. Elliot AltbaumElliot Altbaum

    Coming late to the conversation around planning for the SWLRT I am not sure of the particular advocacy or rationale for each stop, however, I come to the opposite conclusion. The Royalston station is less than a quarter mile to platform 2 that is makes more sense to remove that stop. Use that money to vastly improve pedestrian improvements from 7th and Olson to get to platform 2.
    A Penn ave BRT makes more sense connecting at the Penn Station. For those residents of North Minneapolis going further south towards the VA hospital or the airport, the Olson highway and Penn stop on the Botinneau will be the stop to use.

  6. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs Post author

    It’s true that the Penn BRT opens up the option of routing it via 394, hence close to the Penn Station. My point was that some people are claiming that no reasonable North Mpls.-SWLRT connection exists, and that’s simply not the case. There are several ways to improve that connection, but they don’t require spending lots of money on new bus services.

  7. Alex

    It’s easy for us as transit nerds to say that the Royalston platform is only 1000′ from the bus stops at 7th & Olson, that’s an easy walk, you can practically see the platform from the bus stop. But for casual users having that much distance between the transfer points can be very confusing and disorienting. It’ll help that they’ll probably cut down the boulevard trees that currently give Royalston its sole semblance of human scale, so you’ll be able to see the station at the top of the hill, but it’s not going to mean much to someone who needs to find the LRT to make it to a job interview and who is already late because the bus was early so he missed it and had to get the next one. Really the only way to make Royalston a good transfer point is to build the station a la Lake St over the intersection as you suggest, and obviously that isn’t going to happen. So it’s more likely that Hennepin/Warehouse district will continue to be the major Northside transfer point.

    Regarding Penn, it seems likely to me that Brooklyn Park will be a major transit growth area, and the 19 would be a prime candidate for a hi frequency local to serve at least part of it. So the distance/reliability saving by not going downtown would be beneficial for it. Additionally, to be truly useful to North Mpls and the rest of the city, Metro Transit will eventually have to stop ignoring large suburban job clusters like the one along Hwy 55 in Plymouth. To do so, it seems likely that some fairly high frequency service will be added to Olson, which in addition would offer ample transfer opportunities for current 19 riders. This is obviously long-range, so perhaps not applicable immediately on SWLRT’s opening date, but probably by Bottineau’s opening date, which I believe is now only a year behind SWLRT.

  8. Janne

    Warning: Tangent

    I am often frustrated by the poor connections between South Mpls (Uptown) and North Mpls. I also appreciate the many points of transit connection to surrounding neighborhoods I have (Lake st, Franklin ave, Hennepin/Lyndale, the 22, the 114 to the U). I especially love that I’m not forced through the super slow Downtown connection points to get anywhere outside South.

    I’d love to see a route from North to South along Fremont and over Van White. North, especially with the high percentage of people who rely on buses, should have many options to connect to surrounding neighborhoods and not be forced through Downtown for every trip.

  9. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs Post author

    Two responses to comments above–
    1. Metro Transit doesn’t go to Plymouth because Plymouth opted out of Metro Transit and is now responsible for its own transit. That’s not a good thing, but the legislature made it happen.
    2. In a region where transit is chronically underfunded, there’s no new money to create new bus routes such as north side to south side via Van White. Blvd., especially when those routes would attract few new riders. Unless the legislature passes a regional sales tax increase next year, any new bus service requires cutting buses somewhere else.

    1. Alex

      Aaron, please be aware that all of us have blind spots in our viewpoints; transit advocates don’t always understand the legal and fiscal constraints under which administrators must operate, and administrators don’t always understand that legal and fiscal constraints don’t make something impossible.

      I’m fully aware that Plymouth is an opt-out because I’ve ridden the Plymouth transit services repeatedly. The fact that Plymouth is an opt-out doesn’t mean that transit between Plymouth and Minneapolis is impossible. Obviously opt-outs operate transit services outside of their jurisdiction when they stop in Minneapolis, St Paul, and Bloomington, so why couldn’t Metro Transit operate outside of its jurisdiction. More importantly, why couldn’t Metro Transit and an opt-out agree to jointly operate a service they both feel is important? Of course the opt-out arrangement isn’t ideal, but does it mean that all of our transit providers have been reduced to jealous and uncooperative children?

      Also, as to your second point, if there’s no money for new bus service, why is Metro Transit “developing a 10-15 year service improvement plan for expanding the local and express route bus network”? My understanding is the MVST money and CTIB’s commitments to funding transitway services leave Metro Transit relatively bullish on service expansion. Not to mention the actual trend of increasing investment:

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