The METRO Orange Line will be the Twin Cities Metro’s second highway bus rapid transit line, running from downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville. As seen in the project plan update, many of the line’s basic decisions have already been made. However, there are some left, including improvements to the Marq2 corridor, and the alignment of the transitway between 76th St and American Boulevard Stations. A very prominent decision, however, is where the line will end: the existing Burnsville Transit Station or the Travelers Trail parking lot. At first glance, the answer seems obvious: co-locate it with the already-successful transit hub. However, as I looked into the issue more, I eventually decided, against all common sense, that the opposite is the right answer.
Burnsville Transit Station (BTS) is a park-and-ride owned by the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA), transit provider for much of the southern metro. BTS is the largest park-and-ride in the region and is a hub for express and local service provided by the MVTA. It’s located northeast of Highway 13 and Nicollet Avenue. It’s pretty nice with an indoor waiting area, many bus bays, and, of course, a massive parking structure.
The Travelers Trail site, located at the southwest corner of the same intersection, is a vacant parking lot on MnDOT property that is legally only able to be developed for transit purposes. Before debating the sites, what makes this area of Burnsville suited to be the southern terminus of the Orange Line at all?
Directly south of both sites is one of the more dense and walkable areas in Burnsville: Heart of the City, a “smart-growth based, mixed-use, pedestrian friendly downtown area for Burnsville.” As Burnsville said, it’s got multistory apartment buildings, ground floor retail, and is even a marked pedestrian zone (with sidewalks on both sides of Nicollet Avenue)! Residents could walk up to the Orange Line from their homes and ride into Minneapolis, Richfield, or Bloomington. People from farther north could ride into Burnsville to attend a performance at the Ames Center.
North of the sites, on the other hand, is a collection of one-story office buildings on a stretch of Nicollet Ave that has a sidewalk on only one side. Aside from one apartment complex next to BTS, there’s nothing of interest to an Orange Line rider. But this doesn’t answer the question of why Metro Transit shouldn’t use BTS, does it? Well, the answer is…
I recently rode the bus out to Burnsville Transit Station to take some pictures for this article. In order to get to the dense, walkable area south of BTS, I had to cross over Minnesota State Highway 13.
This involved traversing an unrestricted right turn lane onto a small pedestrian island and then crossing six lanes of traffic. In fact, I made the mistake of crossing west first, only to discover there’s no pedestrian crossing on that side of the intersection. Of course, I had to press a button in order to activate a pedestrian cycle. If you miss your cycle, you’ll be waiting quite awhile to get another opportunity to cross. If I had to do this every time I wanted to ride into Minneapolis or walk back home, I’d probably jump in my car instead. Travelers Trail, being on the south side of Highway 13, doesn’t have this barrier between it and Heart of the City. It’s a place that is very safe to walk to. So what could be some potential problems with using the Traveler’s Trail site?
Obviously, building a completely new stop is going to be more expensive than simply using an existing station. While the plan states that there are going to be capacity problems at Burnsville Transit Station needing to be mitigated through expansion, enhancing BTS would likely still be cheaper. Without more information, I can’t delve much more deeply into this problem.
Burnsville Transit Station is the hub for almost all of the MVTA’s Burnsville-Downtown express routes and Burnsville local routes. I’d hazard a guess that they would be unwilling to reroute those routes to serve a new Metro Transit-operated station instead of their transit station. However, the good thing is that, aside from route 421, all local routes operating out of Burnsville Transit Station run down Nicollet next to the Travelers Trail site. It would be relatively easy to build an enhanced bus stop on Nicollet so that those buses don’t have to pull all the way into the lot to pick up or drop off Orange Line passengers.
Using Google Mapping, I figured out that buses running inbound to either site would take about the same amount of time to enter the station during the morning rush hour. However, when trying to exit to 35W, a bus traveling from the Travelers Trail site would take between one and four minutes longer to get onto the interstate. While an increase in travel time for either stop is expected during rush hour, adding four minutes just to use Travelers Trail is far from ideal. But, if BTS’s location negatively affects ridership, the time savings would benefit few people.
Having the Orange Line split from Burnsville Transit Station would be confusing. It would make it harder for new riders, especially those who drive to the station, to find. If someone took the express bus into work and decided to take the Orange Line back to add more flexibility to their schedule, they probably wouldn’t appreciate being surprised with the fact that their car is across a major highway from where they were dropped off. This could probably be rectified with good signage and a strong public awareness campaign before the Orange Line opening.
We Should Still Start Anew
Even with all these potential problems, Metro Transit should still go with the Travelers Trail site. It is the ideal site to promote walk-up ridership and potentially help spur more smart-growth in the Heart of the City area. In the future, I could see the vacant lots filling up and low-density development being replaced by smart-growth, expanding all the way up to Highway 13 and maybe even spreading across the street. That would be the time to co-locate Orange Line and MVTA services in one building. For now, however, the Orange Line would be best served by having its own building in an ideal location. That location is Travelers Trail.