Quarterly Transit Report – August 2015

The August 22 quarterly schedule change is pretty modest in scope, with only two items worth reporting.

St. Paul School Service

Following Minneapolis’ successful shift of high school students from school buses to public transit, St. Paul Public Schools has been interested in trying it. There was much discussion with Metro Transit last year and it became clear that the St. Paul side of the bus system has less capacity to handle the load than the Minneapolis side. To put it in perspective, the west metro side of the bus system has four garages, while the east metro side has only one. That’s because there is less ridership to serve. St. Paul routes tend to run less frequently, which means less capacity on existing service for students. With only one garage, there are fewer extra buses that can be added for students.

For those reasons, the school district and Metro Transit are taking an incremental approach. This fall, only Johnson High School on the East Side is shifting to public transit. A total of 27 additional weekday trips are being added to Routes 61, 63, 64 and 74. I expect next year will see some schools added, but not all of them.

Tinkering with the Red Line

The Red Line BRT between Apple Valley and Mall of America has had schedule reliability problems on the southbound trips due to inadequate layover at MOA. Buses are scheduled to depart 1 minute after arrival. That tends to be unrealistic because of:

  1. Delays in the security line to enter MOA.
  2. The time it takes to unload and load.
  3. Delays crossing the LRT tracks to exit MOA.

Leaving late from MOA jeopardizes timed transfer connections to other buses at Cedar Grove Station in Eagan and at Apple Valley Station. The new schedule has 3 minutes at MOA, which is a step in the right direction. However, those additional 2 minutes were taken from the northbound travel time, which has been reduced from 27 to 25 minutes.

With such limited layover at MOA, it’s unclear to me why Minnesota Valley Transit continues to detour the northbound Red Line via the 28th Avenue Blue Line LRT station. Looping around MOA via Hwy. 77, Lindau Lane and 24th Avenue would shorten the trip by several minutes and help reliability.

Soccer Stadium at the Snelling Garage Site

The intersection of Snelling and University in 1953. Snelling Station in the foreground became Midway Shopping Center. Snelling Shops in the background was converted to a bus garage, and that property is now vacant.

The intersection of Snelling and University in 1953. Snelling Station in the foreground became Midway Shopping Center. Snelling Shops in the background was converted to a bus garage, and that property is now vacant. Photo courtesy Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

St. Paul is touting the former Snelling bus garage site at Snelling Avenue and I-94 for a soccer stadium. As everyone knows, the site has been vacant for years. What everyone doesn’t know is one of the reasons why. With only a single east metro bus garage, Metro Transit has wanted assurances that it could build an additional St. Paul garage should the transit system outgrow its existing garage capacity.

When I was still working at Metro Transit, we were telling the City of St. Paul, which covets the Snelling site, that they could only have it if they guaranteed an alternate future garage site that met our operational needs. Specifically, it needed to be on an existing bus line for driver reliefs (driver shift changes while the bus continues in service), and it needed convenient freeway access to deadhead to and from terminals at the start and end of the day. Bus garages are an industrial use, which also narrowed the choices.

Few vacant sites met those criteria, so no deal had been reached by the time I retired in 2006. After that, the Great Recession suppressed both bus ridership and development, so I imagine everything was just put on hold. That said, I doubt Metro Transit will simply hand over the site without getting something in return.

One more thought about the site: Is a soccer stadium really the best use? Between the Green Line LRT, the soon-to-appear A Line Snelling Avenue BRT, and the plain old Route 21 Selby-Lake bus, this site has some of the best transit access in the metro area. Doesn’t a classic high density Transit Oriented Development of retail, housing and offices make more sense than a stadium that features many more days of disuse than use? We can do better.

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.

18 thoughts on “Quarterly Transit Report – August 2015

  1. Tyler SchowTyler Schow

    Thanks for starting these back up Aaron! I missed you last time.

    And that’s a very interesting tidbit about the Stadium site. Hopefully you’re not breaking an NDA or anything!

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Do you know the timeline for improvements to the MOA transit station? The new layout will not required the security line for buses to enter, right?

    Since the MOA consolidated the public buses with the private buses, deliveries, taxis, etc, the queue to enter the parking ramp has gotten incredibly tedious. It’s a delay to the transit service that really adds no value to the transit users.

    1. Aaron Isaacs

      I haven’t heard when the reconfiguration of the MOA station will happen, or what security is planned. However, it seems likely the buses will be separated, which will help.

      1. Jaron McNamara

        Reconstruction of the MOA hub is expected to start in the summer of 2016, and be complete in late 2017. From what I’ve heard the Red Line will stay on the current routing via the 28th St Station until the new MOA hub is operational. At that point it will start going up 77 to the Lindau Ln exit, and go directly to the MOA for connections.

        And yes, buses will be getting their own special entrance from what I’ve seen in plans flashed around at various open houses. I hope it will be more reliable than the airport Lindbergh Terminal transit center/oversize vehicle gate, which can take 15 minutes to get through arriving and departing, when the pass reader isn’t working.

  3. Wayne

    What I want to know is why there seems to be zero interest in adding bus lanes anywhere in town? There’s already a big problem (that’s getting much worse recently) with buses getting way behind schedule because they’re stuck in auto traffic. I can think of several places with heavily-used bus routes where you could add a bus lane by removing street parking.

    But of course that’s some kind of unimaginable sin in this city, where allowing a few dozen people to store their private automobiles on public land is more important than moving the thousands of people who use these bus lines on a daily basis around. I’m also really sick of the businesses crying any time there’s talk of removing parking. If parking is so important to their business model they should probably be paying for it themselves instead of freeloading off of public land. In some cases they’re almost willing to remove some parking for bike lanes (which is great!) but never mention adding bus lanes, which would move a far greater number of people. I can’t fathom why streets like 3rd Ave in Stevens Square or Hennepin south of downtown aren’t even being considered for dedicated bus lanes when routes are routinely mired in traffic to the point where walking is faster than taking the bus.

    I also want to slap whomever thought moving all the local buses to 3rd ave downtown for 2 years during the nicollet reconstruction was a good idea without any extra considerations. At the very least they should have ‘temporarily’ (you know, for two years) changed the outside lanes to bus only until the detour was over. Or maybe found another route through downtown that doesn’t add another 15-20 minutes to an already painfully slow ride.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Hennepin between Lake St and downtown would be a good candidate. On-street parking has major benefits to everyone, like encouraging businesses to focus on their sidewalk frontage, and providing a large physical barrier for pedestrians from fast-moving cars. On our busy corridors, though, it’s hard for me to picture.

      3rd Ave in Stevens Square seems like an odd place for bus lanes, though. The 11 is the only bus regularly scheduled there, and it’s not even a high-frequency line.

      IMO, bus-only lanes work very well on extremely busy routes — like where lots of bus lines run concurrent, like Hennepin — and on higher-speed suburban-style highways where there’s lots of space to spare. There are many bus-permissive shoulders on these highways, including the Olson Highway and University Avenue just outside city limits. Cedar Avenue from Crosstown to Dodd Road in Lakeville is a nice example as well (fairly new, non-freeway portion south of 138th St).

      One other thought: if you look at the info sheets from the aBRT studies, you can see how different corridors vary in cause of delays. But even on a congested route like Lake St, very little of the route as a whole is delayed by traffic. On almost every route, the biggest delay is excessive and inefficient stops.

      1. Rosa

        I really don’t get the “excessive stops” drumbeat that is so common here. We don’t expect drivers to shop at places if they have to park half a mile away. Bus users include very old, very young, and disabled people, but this idea that we should have to all walk half a mile to a bus stop to make it “more efficient” keeps coming up.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Those unable to walk to their bus stop (whether on existing 1/8 mile spacing or possible future 1/4 mile spacing) have access to affordable, direct transit service that can serve their needs better: Metro Mobility. If you lived immediately along the corridor, the maximum additional distance you would have to walk is 1/8 of a mile — most would be less. Should we really be slowing down the bus for everyone for the (possible) benefit of people who have another good option (that’s usually faster/more direct and brings them more places)?

          And I said excessive and inefficient for a reason — I do think there are too many stops, but we’re also very inefficient at the stops. I would far prefer to only do off-board fare collection and proof of payment, to remove the driver from the fare process.

          1. Wayne

            Well if they had dedicated ROW and signal priority the stop frequency wouldn’t be as big of a deal. I’m all for off-board fare payment as well. But if we focus on just one of those things and ignore the rest we won’t really accomplish much, which seems to be A-OK around here in the land of 10,000 tiny incremental changes spaced over decades.

          2. Rosa

            I deal with people all the time who are dependent on Metro Mobility, and it is a huge PITA. Among other things if you have a pickup scheduled to get home, and your appointment or errand takes longer than expected, you have to either give up the appointment and reschedule, or lose your ride. It’s better than nothing, but even better is good transit for everyone.

            Metro Mobility is also not the solution for people who are temporarily disabled, pregnant, not disabled but have young children with them, generally able to walk farther but have a large or heavy object today, etc. The bus is for all those people and situations.

      2. Wayne

        They need to re-do those studies with the conditions as they stand today, because there is a LOT more time spent stuck in traffic now than there was a few years ago. Like to the point of doubling the length of a short trip.

        I only threw 3rd ave out there because it’s my daily ride, but the congestion is so bad lately that it takes 30 minutes to get from 24th street to downtown now on the 11. It’s not ‘officially’ high-frequency, but during rush hour it’s pretty frequent and pretty heavily used.

        But yeah, we can’t even consider bus lanes for our most heavily-used routes, so why would we ever think of using them for ‘lesser’ routes (that still carry far more people than suburban express routes which get special treatment lavished upon them.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Why do it for lesser-used highway routes when more heavily used urban routes don’t get it? Usually because there’s less to lose by doing it. If you have a suburban highway with a 150′ right-of-way — that may already have 10′ shoulders — it’s a very minor additional impact to make those bus-permissive shoulders. The only cost is to the rare bicyclists who now has to share their shoulder with buses (but they’re capped at 35 mph and they’re all professional drivers, so I don’t think it’s terribly dangerous). No businesses lose parking, and no through capacity is lost.

          Not to say it’s never worth it to do it in a tighter/more urban environment — just that it’s natural for the low-hanging fruit to get picked first.

          But I’m not sure they’re necessarily less-used. Snelling carries the 84 (Hi Frequency to Rosedale). Cedar Ave carries the Red Line, which is probably less-used than the 11, but is theoretically part of the “METRO” system.

          1. Wayne

            “Why do it for lesser-used highway routes when more heavily used urban routes don’t get it? Usually because there’s less to lose by doing it.”

            And you’ve encapsulated my problem with transit planning here very well. They only ever try to do what’s easy and not what’s effective or needed. We’re nearly out of low-hanging fruit and no one seems to want to buy a ladder to get the rest.

            Also I consider the 84 to be a local route, not a suburban one despite its touching Rosedale on one end. Most major inner-city routes end in the burbs.

  4. John Charles Wilson

    Saint Paul has been royally screwed by Metro Transit since about 2000. What’s gone?

    1. The Har Mar/New Brighton Express
    2. All service to Vadnais Heights
    3. Direct service to Har Mar (crossing Snelling at that point sucks)
    4. Midday service to Mendota Heights
    5. Local service (not limited stop) between Randolph/7th and Sibley Plaza
    6. Midday/Saturday service to White Bear Lake
    7. Midday/Weekend service to Stillwater (no more prison visits for the carless)
    8. Midday/Saturday service to Cottage Grove
    9. Local service within Stillwater/Bayport
    10. Midday/Saturday service to Circle Pines/Lexington

    1. Keith Morris

      Don’t forget the 63(?) on Grand Ave which had high frequency service for one summer and was axed in the fall. A year or so ago.

      1. Chris David

        The 63 was never a “high frequency route.” The ridership doesn’t warrant it. That said, service has improved markedly since they reallocated buses formerly used on University Avenue to Grand and other routes. Route 63 now offers riders connections to the 21 and Green Line on the west end of the route, as well as service every 20-30 minutes, which is way better than it once was…it was hourly on Sunday for a number of years.

  5. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    This might be enough material for a whole other post, but StP schools are also far more isolated by transit than most MPLS are. Take Highland Park, one branch of the 84 gets there… that’s it. South High in MPLS has the blue line, 21, 7, 9 and more within only a few blocks. Roosevelt even has a LRT stop kinda close and two bus lines (if I’m not entirely mistaken). Como in StP has… one branch of the 3; Central High has a branch of the 21 right outside, not horribly far from the Green Line, but the only North/South is the 83, which by the geometry of the routes bridges needs to use a “shuttle” bus (20 passenger?).

    1. John Charles Wilson

      Saint Paul high schools and transit:

      Highland Park used to be on the 4B, which was pretty frequent. Only when the Saint Paul 4 was restructured as the 84 did Highland Park HS suffer.

      Central is 2 blocks from the 21, as always. 21 used to be more frequent in Saint Paul than it is now (every 10 min. weekdays midday in the 1980s)

      Como used to be on a branch of the Saint Paul 12, now I guess the 3 goes somewhere near there.

      Johnson was on the old Saint Paul 15 (not a very frequent route) and is now on the 61 (not much better).

      Harding was directly on the Saint Paul 12 (East 6th St.) which no longer exists. The 63 (East 3rd St.) is now the closest bus.

      Humboldt HS on the West Side, I’m not sure which bus goes closest, I would guess the 75 (old Saint Paul 5, which used to run much better).

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