A Transit Adventure from Big Lake to Apple Valley

Our transit maps are getting more colored lines! We now have three different routes in the METRO system, plus a commuter rail line.

In the spirit of adventure, on Monday, August 18th, I took off of work to ride the transit rails and tires across the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area from Big Lake to Apple Valley. Luckily, a moderate fog set the mood throughout the morning.

Route on Google Maps. The walking estimate was 19 hours and 50 minutes.

The route on Google Maps. The walking estimate was 19 hours and 50 minutes.

To Big Lake!

I live just south of Downtown Minneapolis sans automobile, so in order to get to Big Lake to begin the trip, I actually had to take the outbound Northstar trip at 6:13 AM. I woke up bright and early at 5:15 AM and Nice Rode to Target Field Station from Loring Park. I have a Metropass through my employer, which runs me $50/month through a pretax payroll deduction. A Metropass gets you unlimited rides in a given month, though you do have to pay extra for Northstar–a trip from Minneapolis to Big Lake (and vice versa) is $3.00, compared to the normal $6.00 fare for adults. Not counting the sunk cost of the Metropass, I traveled over 100 miles (round trip) over my whole adventure for $6.00.

After docking my Nice Ride at the North 2nd Avenue & North 6th Street bike station, I walked over to Target Field Station, taking the escalator down to the platform. The train departed on time, though twice idled on the tracks to let southbound Northstar trains pass us. We arrived in Big Lake about 15 minutes behind schedule.

Big Lake!

Not really within walking distance

Not really within walking distance

Big Lake is a town with a medium-sized lake about halfway between Minneapolis and St. Cloud. It sits in Sherburne County, outside of the seven county metropolitan area under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Council. There is a little downtown area, but I don’t think anyone would object to the area being described as exurban. I graduated from high school in a pretty similar area of Northern-ish Virginia, in the kind of no man’s land between stroad-to-stroad subdivisions and open country. We even lived in a subdivision next to a commuter rail station!

At the Big Lake train station, there did appear to be a multi-story apartment building under construction off in the distance, though I’d reckon most people probably wouldn’t want to walk that far in the winter and/or if it was raining. There’s also a subdivision across the street from the train station. Like most of the north metro, there is a lot of beige siding. Based on my previous experience living in an exurban subdivision next to a commuter rail station, many of the people living there probably drive the half mile to the park and ride.

Northstar

Just in case

Just in case

Departure: 7:38 AM

I do have some experience taking Northstar for non-research purposes. My boyfriend grew up in St. Cloud, and one summer in college he lived back home, so I’d periodically take Northstar up yonder from the University of Minnesota. Generally he’d pick me up at Big Lake, but on occasion I’d take the Northstar Link, a bus that connects Big Lake to St. Cloud. I remember the constant, low-level fear that I’d read the schedules wrong and picked an outbound train that didn’t have a corresponding bus ride into St. Cloud, because they don’t all make a connection. I also have memories of Big Lake Police Department squad cars hanging out in the park and ride lot to greet people getting off the train. There was no squad car this morning.

It was the last inbound trip of the morning, and was delayed about 20 minutes because it used the same train as the outbound trip. There was a little loon statue thing at Big Lake Station. A handful of other people boarded at Big Lake, with more trickling in at different stops. By the time we left Fridley Station, the last stop before Downtown Minneapolis, there were ~23 people on the top half of my train car, which has 140 seats. It was maybe a third full–luckily, I had a my own little four seat area with a little table to myself. And, by the way, that seat arrangement with two seats facing another two seats is the worst. Does anyone like that?

The crowd appeared to generally be white collar workers commuting into Downtown Minneapolis. My Metropass was scanned by Metro Transit police officers on both the outbound and inbound trips–I think I remember that being done by conductors in the past? The train had free wi-fi and a couple laptops were out. One guy slept with a book open. More than zero passengers had blaze orange visible–Northstar travels straight through the middle of Minnesota’s most conservative congressional district, which is ironic considering the massive subsidy (something like $17 or $18 per rider) required to operate the train. Both Congresswoman Bachmann and Governor Pawlenty supported the project at the time it was funded and built. (8/25/14 Note: As it turns out, Congresswoman Bachmann did not really support the line. She did request federal funding for it, but did not personally want it to get built.)

After we left Big Lake, it was a straight shot into the city, with no delays other than scheduled stops. There were lots of freight trains headed north, but everything appeared to be synced up correctly so as to prevent us from idling. In general, delays due to freight traffic have increasingly been an issue, and at times the Metro Transit Twitter has basically been a continuous stream of Tweets about Northstar delays. We did pay Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad $107.5 million dollars for trackage rights, so there’s that.

Rolling through the fog

Rolling through the fog

All of the Northstar stations have park and rides. They’re not huge, but eyeballing it from the train, I’d say they were mostly a little more than half full. Ramsey and Anoka (and, I guess, Downtown Minneapolis) Stations have structured park and rides. The Ramsey Station has a pretty detailed transit-oriented development plan (page 6) and has started following through on some of it. One of the apartment buildings has already been built, along with a bit of office/retail and a government center for the City of Ramsey.

One of the challenges with any suburban transit oriented development outside the core cities is that you’re really not going to eliminate the need for a car. In this case, there’s a Coburn’s grocery store within walking distance, and the train station to get you to Downtown Minneapolis, but I can’t really imagine anyone living here without a car–yet. Maybe, if/when that whole development plan has been fleshed out, it would seem doable. But for now, you’d be marooned. So in almost all situations with suburban-focused transit, you’re really just chasing after the possibility of eliminating two car trips per day, but more likely, you’re chasing after the possibility of shortening two car trips per day, as most people are going to be arriving at the station by car.

Northstar Line (Source: metrotransit.org)

Northstar Line (Source: metrotransit.org)

Furthermore, ridership on Northstar has lagged behind projections. In 2013, there were 787,239 rides, more than 100,000 below the ridership we’d projected for 2010 before the line opened in 2009. As mentioned earlier, the per ride subsidy runs something like $17 or $18 per ride, which is, ah, a lot. Doing some back of the napkin math, multiplying the 2013 Q3 weekday daily ridership of 3,100 by $17 gets you $52,700 per weekday. Probably good for a lot of bus shelters (obviously it doesn’t work that way, we all know it doesn’t work that way, that’s besides the point). There are a lot of potential and probable reasons for Northstar’s low ridership, including traffic congestion in the Twin Cities being not quite as apocalyptic as many other parts of the country and the prospect of a transfer to the Blue Line at Target Field Station to get into the central business district of Downtown Minneapolis. Also, I suspect that people in the conservative north metro are maybe less amenable to using transit than, say, Minnetonkans.

Very European!

Very European!

Anywho, we did arrive in Downtown Minneapolis about half an hour late due to our initial late departure. People shuffled out of the train and up the stairs and escalator to 5th Street where the connection to the Blue Line is located. It felt very European! Just like Grand Central Station! I did stop for a moment to take a picture standing in that pedestrian area between the two Target Field Station platforms, and I did turn around and immediately run directly into a person who was walking. In light of all the complaints about the noisy pedestrian signals, I thought that was a hoot.

Arrival: 8:40 AM

Fog

The Downtown Minneapolis and Anoka Stations have surprisingly similar land uses!

Blue Line

Departure: 8:44 AM

At this point, the Blue Line is old news! It’s been up and running for over ten years. The Blue Line, known for years as the Hiawatha Line, travels from Target Field in Downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America in Bloomington. I’m pretty sure that there were two riders (guessing a father and daughter) who got off of the same Northstar train as me and also rode all the way to the Mall of America–I wonder if that’s common? There were lots of different people on the three car train. TSA workers leaving the airport, other people going to the airport, stray teenagers, whole families, etc. You could hear muffled music from headphones. It wasn’t crowded, but most of the seats were taken. I, with my intimidating notebook, did not end up with a seatmate.

Blue Line

Blue Line

Ridership projections for the Blue Line have been blown out of the water, and weekday ridership in 2013 (about 33,500) was about 35% higher than what we had projected it would be in 2020 (24,800 – page 37). That said, transit oriented land use changes around Blue Line stations haven’t been dramatic. The recession certainly didn’t help, but it’s taken ten years for some of the more obvious station-adjacent parking/vacant lots to be redeveloped at the Nicollet Mall, Cedar-Riverside, and Lake Street Stations. Bloomington Central Station certainly fizzled after getting its two condo buildings built. We could reasonably assume, though, that with grocery stores popping up seemingly weekly in Downtown Minneapolis and the apartment boom continuing, the stations will see more infill in the Blue Line’s second decade.

The Blue Line, though, does connect lots of things, and has two major trip generators (Downtown Minneapolis & the Mall of America) on each end, and a third major trip generator (the airport) towards the end of the southern portion. There are intuitive transit connections throughout at Nicollet Mall, Lake Street, and the transfer point to the Green Line in Downtown East. When it opened in 2004, there were already tens of thousands of people who could easily walk to the Blue Line’s stations from their homes and apartments, though some of the pedestrian conditions along Hiawatha Avenue could use some work. All things considered, the Blue Line was and is a success.

After winding around some fields in Bloomington, our train arrived at Mall of America Station on time.

Arrival: 9:29 AM

Red Line

Departure: 9:31 AM

Red Line (Source: metrotransit.org)

Red Line (Source: metrotransit.org)

I quickly hopped onto a waiting Red Line bus at Mall of America Station. It was my first time! I was one of four people on the bus, including the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) driver and a man in a Metro Transit uniform. We rolled out of the mall and onto Highway 77 (Cedar Avenue), heading south across the Minnesota River valley to Eagan. And finally, the sun came out. I’d been freezing all morning. Both Northstar trains and the Blue Line train were air conditioned down to probably 40 degrees. And the seats! The seats are covered in material from your grandmother’s living room.

I did like the buses. You can hear the turn signal clicking! The seats on the right side were removed near the back door, which seems like a really functional seat configuration. There was also a rear boarding payment system set up for riders with transit passes, which also seems to make a lot of sense.

The Red Line opened up last year. It’s been billed as bus rapid transit, though the exact definition of bus rapid transit is elusive and unlikely to be worked out in any of our lifetimes. The Red Line…doesn’t really make sense. It travels from the Apple Valley Transit Station to the Mall of America. That’s it. So there’s a required transfer to go anywhere else on transit. The location of Cedar Grove Station, the second station after the mall, is also sort of bizarre. The bus gets off of Highway 77 and backtracks for a mile or so, presumably to make connections and hit the now open outlet stores down in Eagan. Another $14.6 million dollars is sought (on top of the $112 million dollar project cost) to move the station into the median of the highway.

Retro

Retro

We picked up one person at Cedar Grove Station, and no one at the the 140th Street and 147th Street Stations. I felt sort of bad for the driver, having to do this loop constantly, every day, stopping to pick up phantom passengers at empty bus stations. There was a certain vibe to it. All four passengers got off at the Apple Valley Transit Station. The exit doors at the station open up into the garage of a Midas. Ridership has been lower than projected, with just 839 daily riders on average in June. Dividing that by the 130 trips per day noted on the schedule, that leaves you with 6.45 rides per trip–presumably the .45 accounts for streets.mn writers with notebooks who aren’t really commuting.

Arrival: 9:54 AM

Writes itself!

Writes itself!

I don’t really get the sense that congestion is bad enough in the fairly-wealthy south metro to convince people to drive to Apple Valley Transit Station, park, get on a bus, switch to a train in the basement of the Mall of America, and then take a train into Downtown Minneapolis. Besides, there are already express buses in Apple Valley and Eagan that go directly to downtown, so…again, it doesn’t really make sense. The Mall of America is a destination by itself, but most of its trips aren’t being generated during rush hour, when congestion is the worst–it’s hard to imagine many people in Apple Valley driving ten minutes to a Red Line station, parking, paying for the train, and going to the mall, when they can just continue driving another ten minutes. Hell, I probably would.

I made a joke last year that the Red Line is an expensive bus from the Mall of America to the Apple Valley Batteries Plus, but at the time I missed that there are actually three (3) separate auto repair shops immediately next to the station, which is fantastic. There are some apartments and townhouses along the route, but generally Cedar Avenue is surrounded by big box chain stores and their corresponding enormous parking lots. I certainly did feel like a kid again, jaywalking and wandering around for a bit, taking some photos and just generally taking it all in. It’s a huge road and it’s not really clear what kind of transit oriented development potential any of this has in the near future.

Three auto repair shops!

Three auto repair shops!

So those are three of our transit lines, and examples of commuter rail, light rail, and bus rapid transit (probably). Are they functional and successful? If you were in a situation where you had to save two of three, would you bother saving more than the Blue Line? Northstar is probably eventually salvageable as the first half of an inter city rail link to St. Cloud, but that’s certainly at least an entire decade away. And why do our models and projections underestimate ridership on urban routes like the Blue and Green Lines and overestimate ridership on suburban and exurban routes like Northstar and the Red Line? I don’t know! I didn’t go to grad school.

There’s a conflation that goes on around here and in other places, where everyone who challenges the status quo kind of gets lumped together. People who respond to news of a new bus shelter on Franklin Avenue in South Minneapolis with “well, we should be building a doubledecker subway under Franklin to link to my Plymouth and Rosemount heavy rail proposals” are tossed in with people who ask, in a pretty reasonable tone, what exactly the point of the Red Line is.

What is our goal here? Is it to put colored lines on a map and juice our numbers so that we can say x.x% of people in our metro area touched transit in a year? Certainly, the suburbs are here and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. But we shouldn’t continue spending hundreds of millions (billions?) of dollars to build transit to places where the underlying land use is so broken that the transit can’t be successful.

Note: I did have the idea to take what I think is the longest possible transit trip in the Twin Cities Combined Statistical Area, using the St. Cloud Metro Bus to go from Sartell to St. Cloud, then the Northstar Link from St. Cloud to Big Lake, Northstar from Big Lake to Minneapolis, the Green Line from Minneapolis to St. Paul, and then an express bus out to Stillwater, but working out the times with express buses seemed too risky when a vacation day was hanging in the balance. Also, I would have been stranded in Stillwater.

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42 Responses to A Transit Adventure from Big Lake to Apple Valley

  1. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell August 20, 2014 at 7:43 am #

    Great article! I think just like with bicycling for transportation (vs using motor vehicle transportation to haul your bicycle to a trail to ride for recreation), using transit will take time to build mindshare, especially for burbs and exurbs where driving is so automatic.

    Reliability is also a big issue. Most bosses in MN aren’t going to like hearing for the 50th time that you’re late because the train was late and most of us won’t want to take an earlier train and have to kill a gob of time when it’s accidentally on time and likely have to kill some time even if it’s late. I think I’ll take my car.

    Just like with the P&R’s for buses, I wonder how many people live within one or two or five miles of the stations? What would happen if we built a web if good quality Dutch bicycle infrastructure out from each station to surrounding residential pots? Oh, mindshare. Well, maybe each of the first five times someone rides their bicycle to the station they get a free ride and a cappuccino.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary August 20, 2014 at 10:30 am #

      I agree with Walker here, that bicycles can be the key to the last mile problem. If we agree that park and rides are not sustainable (and I think we do), and we acknowledge that most of these stations are not located in areas where many people will walk to the station, bicycles are the only good solution.

      Walking even a mile to a station is a schlep — three miles is unacceptable to most. Three miles on bike (if the infrastructure exists to make it safe and pleasant) is quite workable.

    • brad August 20, 2014 at 11:58 am #

      On reliability: a coworker rode the Northstar from Elk River for months, but finally has basically given up because it’s late (or cancelled!) so frequently.

  2. Julie Kosbab August 20, 2014 at 7:56 am #

    I have to agree with Walker — “Anywho, we did arrive in Downtown Minneapolis about half an hour late due to our initial late departure.” This is a frequent enough occurrence that for many, it’s not an acceptable approach in either direction. Add in factors like daycare pickup, and excessive or unexpected lateness can be a big deal-breaker. Schedule frequency also can be a limiter, because if you have a boss who always has “one more last question” on your way out, you miss a train and the next option may be a while.

    I grew up outside of Chicago, and was a Metra rider for a while, living in my mom’s basement (it was free!) and working on North Michigan Avenue. During rush, I never had to wait more than 15 minutes for a train. If I missed my “usual,” the 4:58, the next train to my destination was actually a local and fuck that noise because if I waited for the 5:16, that was an express and it’d pass the local and beat it to my station. (And it had a bar car, so there was also that.) Next train after that was shortly after 5:30, with two more options before 6. Ridership and economics of Northstar just don’t support this.

    I would say the other challenge of the three lines you cite is that when building out infrastructure, you have to start somewhere and create a few key hubs and arterial lines. As you demonstrate, there is a strong north-south axis now established. The Green Line starts on an east-west balancer. Any other lines created to start — for instance, starting with east-west instead — would see some of the same challenges you saw on north-south.

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele August 20, 2014 at 8:55 am #

      The only thing Metra and Northstar have in common is the mode of commuter rail on freight company tracks. Beyond that, the land use around the stations couldn’t be any different. Nearly all metra stations have walkable urbanism around them.

      Why does land use play into service quality? In Chicago, whether someone lives close in, or connected by El or Metra, they are in a dense walkable node, on a string of similar such nodes, which therefore can support frequent service. Park & rides in corn fields don’t have the same effect, so we get our six daily trips with no flexibility.

      And when we build a system around park & rides, where people still have their cars but are paying a transit fare to leave them in a corn field rather than a fee to park in a ramp downtown, the marginal lifestyle optimization to use transit for the choice rider is nearing zero — before any problems arise due to the lack of frequency or the constant delay of the few frequencies we do run.

      As Cap’n Transit explained, it’s losing by a landslide rather than winning by default, especially when we continue to make driving so darn easy. http://capntransit.blogspot.com/2013/01/winning-by-default-or-losing-by.html

      • Julie Kosbab August 20, 2014 at 11:04 am #

        A key difference between Metra and Northstar is that many towns along Metra grew because of the train placement. Metra wasn’t really an after-the-fact overlay attempt. Much of the walkable urbanism has been built in the last 20 years, at least along the line I grew up along. (The North line, along the near-North stations, was further along in that sense than either the Northwest or West lines, whatever they’re calling them now. My home station, and the stations nearest my home station, have all been completely rebuilt in the last 10 years.)

        • Nick Magrino
          Nick Magrino August 20, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

          And I’m hopeful (!) that land use in 20 years around Northstar stations will similarly reflect our investment, but eh, ya know.

          • Sam Newberg
            Sam Newberg August 20, 2014 at 9:49 pm #

            Or move to suburban Chicago.

            • Julie Kosbab August 21, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

              The overall density of suburban Chicago is completely different over a similar 20 to 40 mile stretch, though. There is a reason the term “edge city” gets used in the region, and most of the edge aligns to the airport and the rail lines.

              My hometown was suburban, but walkable/bikeable.

            • Bill Lindeke
              Bill Lindeke August 22, 2014 at 6:25 pm #

              eew

  3. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele August 20, 2014 at 8:43 am #

    I’m surprised so many conservative pols supported Northstar because, unlike the Red Line in Apple Valley and Lakeville (where it doesn’t even run), Northstar didn’t expand highway capacity for single-occupancy automobiles. But I guess it did hand over nine figures to BNSF, so that probably explains the support.

    But seriously, it’s shameful how the Big Lake and Elk River stations are located in isolated corn fields when there was literally existing Transit Friendly Development (traditional downtowns) immediately adjacent to the railroad tracks.

    • Julie Kosbab August 20, 2014 at 11:06 am #

      Oh, they opposed it, but they ARE quite insisting that a Ramsey station be added.

      The whole relationship of some of the northern suburbs, particularly the Anoka County Board, to the “choo choo” is quite fascinating and insane. One of the ringleaders is running for Bachmann’s seat. I have told people that if she wins (I doubt she will, but I’ve been surprised before), she’ll make Madame Michele look SANE.

  4. Aaron Isaacs
    Aaron Isaacs August 20, 2014 at 10:13 am #

    Nick and the commenters asked a lot of questions about why these lines were built. Underlying those comments is the naive belief that you can ignore the suburbs and spend all your money in the city, or at least in suburban walkable neighborhoods. Sorry, but the world doesn’t work that way. Metro Transit is funded by the entire metro area. The central cities get way more of that funding than would occur if service was parceled out purely on population. On top of that, the large majority of suburban services are expresses that feed the two downtowns, which is a direct urban benefit.

    Because the suburbs are a tough transit market, and Metro Transit to stay within subsidy per passenger ceilings, suburban service has evolved into two basic types:
    1. Non-stop expresses to downtown from big park-ride lots that concentrate enough trip ends to justify frequent service. There is some local circulation thru neighborhoods trolling for walkup ridership, but that strategy doesn’t attract many riders–big park-ride lots do. Combine that with frequent service and transit advantages like shoulder bus lanes and the ridership meets subsidy per passenger standards and diverts plenty of auto trips to transit.

    2. Suburb-to-suburb local service is a tough market to tap, but those are the trips being made by a lot of people who don’t own cars. For those trips, the strategy is to connect a series of suburban transit centers with routes that make timed transfers. That’s the whole point of the Red Line. It connects MOA, the single biggest suburban transit hub, with smaller hubs at Cedar Grove and Apple Valley. The connections are timed, so even if the buses run hourly, they connect. Is it likely to take people out of their cars? No. But if all you can afford is a basic transit framework to move people around the suburbs, that’s how you do it.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary August 20, 2014 at 10:31 am #

      I don’t disagree with the problem that Nick and others have stated — that transit in the far-out suburbs loses by a landslide compared to driving. But I do disagree with the solution.

      The problem is not that transit is too inconvenient (a half-hour express bus ride on a coach bus to downtown for $2.75 is a pretty good deal), it’s that driving is too convenient and the cost too hidden. Tolls would be a preferable solution. If not that, avoiding capacity expansions that make driving faster relative to bussing.

      • Matt Steele August 20, 2014 at 10:35 am #

        Truth!

        Specifically with the Red Line, I have no idea what Red Line planners were doing adding capacity and removing traffic chokepoints like stoplights on Cedar Ave. Spend transit money on making life easier for car commuters, and then wonder why nobody uses the transit? Nuts!

    • Matt Steele August 20, 2014 at 10:33 am #

      We’ve already proven many times how park & rides are a massive drain on millions of dollars of capital per year, so I’ll leave that issue for now.

      I want to look at “The central cities get way more of that funding than would occur if service was parceled out purely on population.” That would be a horrible way to distribute transit service in a way that maximizes value. It would be as nuts as if the Metro demanded that two-thirds of farm implement dealers be located inside the metro since we have two-thirds of the state’s population (assuming some state subsidy of the industry) regardless of where the farms are. Compatible land use is more important that population numbers.

    • Nick Magrino
      Nick Magrino August 20, 2014 at 5:48 pm #

      And I want the suburbs to be served by transit! That’s where most people live! I know there are some suburban express routes that have lower per ride subsidies than some urban local routes. I just want them to be served in ways that make sense. Over $300 million dollars for fixed rail transit with ~1,500 weekday riders? That’s a terrible investment. I make terrible investments too, but I don’t get defensive when my friends make fun of me for buying said scratch tickets.

      I may even be willing to live with the craziness of structured, free park and ride ramps for suburban bus routes if we stopped the billions of dollars flowing to dubious transitway development out there. Maybe we could start taxing people from the suburbs who want to take wedding photos on the Stone Arch Bridge, and use that to build the park and rides?

      • Aaron Isaacs
        Aaron Isaacs August 20, 2014 at 11:48 pm #

        Nick,
        Did you see me defending the Northstar Line? No–because I didn’t. I agree with you that it’s a very expensive way to provide that service and it could be done much cheaper with buses.

        • Nick Magrino
          Nick Magrino August 21, 2014 at 12:10 am #

          Sorry, you did not specifically say Northstar. But, Northstar’s $300 million/1,500 people a day may be better than the Red Line’s $112 million/415 people a day. Obviously there’s lots of math on napkins, and the 839 total rides might not translate into all round trips, and it’s not all about capital costs, but the idea is similar.

    • Keith Morris August 20, 2014 at 7:49 pm #

      Did you even read the entry and look at those sad pictures? If there’s ever a Streets.MN happy hour let’s go in on a pizza: I’ll chip in a couple bucks and I’ll take half. Then I’ll call you naive and tell you that you should be happy that you’re getting anything at all.

      • Aaron Isaacs
        Aaron Isaacs August 21, 2014 at 12:05 am #

        Streets.mn is a great forum and we’re all pushing in the direction of better transit and more sustainable, walkable, less auto-dependent cities. However, I have noticed that quite a few contributors make sweeping generalizations that are naive (yes–naive) because they fail to appreciate how difficult it is to accomplish those goals. There are big time political, economic and institutional obstacles to good transit. I know because I was in the trenches for over 30 years. I never stopped pushing, but I learned the difference between what was doable and what was wishful thinking. An imperfect transit service that is hauling passengers beats a perfect one that never gets built.

        • Nick Magrino
          Nick Magrino August 21, 2014 at 12:13 am #

          (Please keep doing what you’re doing!)

  5. Reuben Collins
    Reuben Collins August 20, 2014 at 11:48 am #

    Nick, I love this post. I can’t decide if the fact that you took a day of vacation to make this trip is evidence of your madness or brilliance.

    “And why do our models and projections underestimate ridership on urban routes like the Blue and Green Lines and overestimate ridership on suburban and exurban routes like Northstar and the Red Line?” This is a critical question. To me, it signifies that we are operating on a fundamental misunderstanding of how and why people are using transit.

    Next question: How should the implications of this post influence how we react to other transit proposals currently in various states of planning?

  6. Andy Sturdevant August 20, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    Nick, you scooped me! I was thinking of making a similar mega-trip for The Stroll from the furtherest point to the furthest point on one transfer. Mine wouldn’t have been as smart as this, though. And I’m not sure what there is to look at once I’d arrived and was walking around on foot. Well done!

    • Nick Magrino
      Nick Magrino August 20, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

      Big Lake to Cottage Grove, I think? Good luck! The real challenge is getting back after the outbound express route :(.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke August 22, 2014 at 6:19 pm #

      It takes a helluva man to scoop Sturdevant!

  7. Michael August 20, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    Perhaps another reason ridership lags on the suburban routes is that they are essentially half-assed attempts at providing rapid transit. Both the Green and Blue lines have dedicated ROW on their routes (although they unfortunately lack full signal priority). Meanwhile Northstar is frequently spent waiting for BNSF trains to clear the tracks, and the Red Line does not have dedicated lanes to speed travel between stations.

    The main reason though, as the author stated, is likely just a lack of high demand destinations on these routes, as opposed to the numerous destinations for the Blue and Green lines.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary August 20, 2014 at 3:16 pm #

      Actually, with the exception of the area around Cedar Grove and MOA Stations, Red Line does have dedicated, full-width shoulders it can use for its full route.

  8. Jeff Peltola
    Jeff Peltola August 20, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

    I’d like to go along next time… 🙂

  9. Jeb Rach
    Jeb August 21, 2014 at 9:06 pm #

    Your last paragraph intrigued me on the longest transit trip in the MSP/STC CSA. I think I have a longer one, though, though you’d have to somehow get to Sauk Centre to start it (or get back there.) It’s also only able to be done on Thursdays.

    1. Take the Tri-Cap bus from Sauk Centre to St. Cloud. (http://tricap.org/images/imageManager/STEARNS%20COUNTY%20BUS%20ROUTES%202014.pdf)
    2. Spend an insane amount of time in St. Cloud waiting for the Northstar Link.
    3. Take the Northstar Link to Big Lake.
    4-6. Do the trip you detailed in this post.

    If my math is right, it should add at least 20 miles to the trip, if not a few more “transit miles” (as I just did basic math on Google Maps.) I’d actually like to try it one time, but I’d need to figure out how to get back to Sauk Centre without having to wait a week for the return trip.

    • Matt Steele August 21, 2014 at 11:03 pm #

      And you could take a commuter bus from our metro to Rochester to make it even longer. Sure it’s private, but it’s transit rather than intercity in nature.

      • Jeb Rach
        Jeb August 22, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

        That dips out of the combined statistical area, though, since there’s no MSP/Rochester combined statistical area (at least that I’m aware of.) Sauk Centre would still be within the combined statistical area (thanks to the fact that Stearns County is quite large.)

        That would be quite the transit trip, though, and would take two days to fully accomplish.

  10. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke August 22, 2014 at 6:24 pm #

    man Nick this is kinda depressing; i wonder what any of the folks at CTIB or Metro Transit must think of this situation.

  11. Paul Udstrand August 23, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Actually, Pawlenty and Bachmann didn’t support Northstar, their opposition is the main reason it ends at Big Lake lake instead of St. Cloud. The Big Lake terminus virtually guaranteed lower ridership numbers, it was basically sabotage intended to produce a failed “experiment”.

    Yeah, spending millions of dollars to build it, and then sabotaging it to hobble ridership only increased the operating subsidy and decreased the transit related development. But hey, that’s what happens when anti- choo-choo’s are in power. Normal people tend to decide that as long as your spending that much money, you may as well do everything you can to make it work as best as possible.

    I thought there were plans to extend it all the way to St. Cloud?

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell August 23, 2014 at 2:59 pm #

      Pawlenty’s position was that if it was going to be built then it should go all the way to St Cloud. He didn’t think it made sense to stop short. I believe it was the federal gov’t whose analysis indicated that it should stop in Big Lake?

      • Paul Udstrand August 25, 2014 at 8:42 am #

        Walker,

        Well, “yes” and “no” as far as Pawlenty’s support goes. For years he opposed the line, then he supported the shorter line to Big Lake. Then the Fed under Bush changed their criteria and it matched Pawlenty’s plan. Republican’s always opposed rail but couldn’t always kill it. The suggestion that they got higher ridership projections by running to Big Lake instead of St. Cloud is transparently bogus. Pawlenty at the time drifted a little ways from the party line now and then probably because he was even then looking at a presidential run. He also came out in support of alternative energy you may recall. Anyways, Pawlenty was never a big supporter of a line going all the way to St. Cloud, they just pretended that Big Lake was a better idea.

        Excerpt:

        “The FTA criteria
        The rail line Pawlenty has endorsed is shorter and cheaper than the one originally proposed.

        For three years – 2000, 2001 and 2002 – proponents of the rail line unsuccessfully sought state funding of an 82-mile commuter link between downtown Minneapolis and St. Cloud.

        The longer line earned coveted “recommended” status from the FTA because the agency favored rail projects that were likely to attract more new riders to transit than comparable bus lines. Last year, the line lost the FTA recommended status because it lacked state funding.”

        Source: Star Tribune via Iowa Transporter: http://www.itd.idaho.gov/transporter/2004/011604_Trans/011604_MnDOT.html

    • Nick Magrino
      Nick Magrino August 25, 2014 at 11:07 pm #

      Based on this, I’m going to add a note about Bachmann–I thought I’d remembered that happening, but everything is hazy. Should have looked for a link for that! It looks like she did ultimately request money for it as part of the stimulus package, but grudgingly.

      http://www.twincities.com/politics/ci_16373290

  12. Paul Udstrand August 23, 2014 at 10:12 am #

    The route selection was poor as well. I think if the first commuter rail had gone to Rochester through Hastings, Northfield, etc. it would have seen projected ridership numbers if not more. The Northstar route is almost a train to nowhere. I’m not saying Norhstar shouldn’t have been built, but it should have at least gone all the way to St. Cloud, and it shouldn’t have been the 1st commuter rail in the state.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell August 23, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

      I think Rochester was out mainly because of ongoing conversations for MSP > CHI going through there

      • Paul Udstrand August 25, 2014 at 9:13 am #

        Yeah, a Rochester route would have brought passengers into St. Paul, probably by the old Amtrak station. They would have had to lay track to get people to MPLS. But that brings us back to the decision to build the first LR to the Mall of America rather than between St. Paul and MPLS. Although the Blue line was the path of least resistance in many ways, part of the decision had to do with republican opposition at the time, a lot of republican law makers expected the Blue Line would fail and give them: “We told you so” bragging rights. They expected us to put all this silliness about choo choos and century old technology behind us and go back to laying concrete for cars.

        The blue line ended up being far more successful than anyone expected it to be, but the Green Line should have been first, connected to the first commuter rail from Rochester. This isn’t hindsight, people realized this at the time but couldn’t it passed small guvment anti “choo choo” lawmakers.

        From collapsing bridges to heavily subsidized private bus companies republicans have a bad transportation record. I’m not pointing this out to be partisan, I just think it’s important to remember that who you vote for can make a huge difference when it comes to transit planning on both the local and federal level.

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