How to Spend the Next Billion on Transit

The Twin Cities is gearing up to spend quite a bit of money on transit infrastructure over the next five-to-ten years. By my count, the Blue Line Extension (Bottineau LRT), Green Line Extension (Southwest LRT), Orange Line BRT, and Gold Line BRT will run a tab of nearly $4 billion. Some of these lines are more cost-effective than others, and they all certainly connect centrally-located transit riders with some of the (many) suburban job centers. Suburban commuters also benefit.

Here’s the rub: it’s not enough. Not even close. I’m going to throw some data in chart form at you to show why. As many a commenter can tell you, the Minneapolis-St Paul region is a fairly sprawled one, in both jobs and population. By this semi-scientific measure, we’re the 147th most compact metro of 221 in these United States. One could make the case that this has worked out pretty well for drivers:

Job Accessibility by Car, Percent of Total Across US Metros

Metros with over 1 million jobs

The average resident in the Twin Cities can access nearly every job in the metro within 30 minutes according to the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory. MSP ranks among the best large metros in this regard. Meanwhile, the average transit rider has it much worse:

Job Accessibility by Transit, Percent of Total Across US Metros

This chart would look much worse with an upper bound of 100%

MSP is in the middle of the pack in providing job access by transit to residents, with most metros failing to crack 2% of jobs in 30 minutes (again, for the average person). One final chart:


For the average metro area resident, one can access nearly 100 times more jobs by car than transit in a 30 minute window. Minneapolis-St Paul is clearly in the bottom tier of large metros, with peer-sized regions (e.g. Seattle and Denver) doing about as good a job as cities with much better legacy transit infrastructure (Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc), and New York is clearly a cut above the field. I’d say this has as much to do with the quality and coverage of transit as it does about road congestion limiting job access by car, but congested metros are often the ones with the most, and typically highest-paying, jobs in the first place.

This is unacceptable.

Access to economic opportunity should not rely on how many cars per working adult a household can afford. Yes, in the real world, people make all sorts of trade-offs in living arrangements relative to their job location. School quality, yard size, house size & features, proximity to family or friends, preference for commuting in a single occupancy vehicle, I could go on. And we will likely never completely level the transit vs car playing field (see: New York City). But someone should be able to live in most parts of our metro and still have the ability to access a reasonable number of jobs without a car in a reasonable commute time.

Okay, So What About That $1 Billion Idea?

I stated earlier that our major planned regional transit lines aren’t enough. Simply put, our metro has jobs scattered about too much for a few rail lines to really impact job accessibility for a typical resident. As transit advocates, we need to admit that after nearly $4 billion, there will be little appetite for more large-scale rail or expensive highway BRT investments, particularly ones that take a decade or more to study and plan and build.

This is what we'll get for $4 billion as planned, including the first two aBRT routes.

This is what we’ll get for $4 billion as planned, including the first two aBRT routes.

We’re going to have to be probus, the cheap kind that can roll out on urban arteries and even highways near major job centers. Let’s assume the 4 major lines under planning are funded and built given regional politics and wheels already in motion. How should we spend the next $1 billion? Why not something that looks like this:

MSP $1bn Proposal


These lines on a map represent every single studied highway BRT, arterial BRT, plus the Midtown Greenway rail project and Red Rock Corridor BRT. Using cost estimates from the latest project documents, and inflating to 2020 dollars, I estimate we could build them all for $1.19 billion. Depending on how you calculate riders from project documents, these lines would see between 90,000 and 100,000 weekday riders in 2030.

This is no fantasy map; I intended it to be pragmatic and within the realm of possibility based on what the Met Council and partners have already investigated. Using a mix of project document and Census OnTheMap data, there were roughly 900,000 non-downtown jobs, for a total of 1.03 million, within a half mile radius of the stations. I should note that the aBRT documents count jobs within a half-mile of the aBRT “route,” which likely overstates the job shed. No, not everyone will be able to reach all one million jobs in half an hour or less. But I’m willing to bet an accessibility model will show massive improvement over the status quo.

I took a few liberties and applied the aBRT treatment to a few more of our top bus routes (and then some), added a few highway BRT lines or extensions, and estimated the capital costs for an even more robust high-frequency bus network:

MSP $1.6 billion dollar transit investment

Go ahead and play around with it. Note the way the trunk radial LRT lines act as great transfer points with many bus lines, and the relative ease many residents (particularly in the core) can reach major suburban job centers with a single transfer. A person in Brooklyn Park could get on the Blue Line, transfer to the Highway 100 BRT in Robbinsdale, and go directly to Normandale Lake Office Park.

A grand total of $1.65 billion ($2020) builds this network. That’s roughly one Southwest Light Rail, or a little more than two Stillwater Bridges. With almost all the investment inside Hennepin and Ramsey Counties (but for a few tails of lines in Dakota and Carver), we could build it all in roughly four to five years with a revamped regional sales tax. Yes, aBRT and Highway BRT will cost Metro Transit more to operate than today’s budget allows. The $1 billion plan adds $124 million ($2020) a year in operating costs per project documents. So let’s build the lines out a tad slower and use the new sales tax to fund operations long-term. And hey, maybe in a decade we can use some surplus to build a few tunnels downtown.

This is the conversation I wish we were having in the state legislature. This is what a conservative’s approach to building an equitable transit system looks like. The MN GOP should be pushing back on existing plans with a reasonable alternative like this paired with other smart, low-cost improvements to the bus system and congestion pricing on every urban highway. Instead we get cuts in real dollars for regular service and no funding for transit improvements.

Yes, we could debate exactly which lines get built, or their routing. Municipalities will also need to pitch in and build sidewalks, bike paths, and bike parking around stations. We should up-zone the not-terrible station areas and build affordable housing.  And we should be strategic in making a few highway station areas really nice. This is how we allow our suburbs to steer the ship ever so slightly away from car-dependence while strengthening the core cities by bolstering suburban job access. And it can be done quickly and on the cheap, relatively speaking.

21 thoughts on “How to Spend the Next Billion on Transit

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Great post here. “This is what a conservative approach to transit looks like.” To me the key is to pair it with congestion pricing or a full-bore MnPass network, even if it means removing a regular travel lane, all across the system too. Changing the balance means not just investing in transit, but tweaking how freeways are used to be more equitable to transit and/or peak-hour pricing.

    PS Where’s the Riverview corridor?

  2. helsinki

    I would be wary of making it a high priority for transit to connect commuters in low-density suburbs.

    The focus on work commuting is the historical US approach and it generally results in systems that fail other trip destinations (errands, visiting other people, appointments, etc). The indiscriminate geographic approach trying to link the entire metro area is a sisyphean task: auto-centric bedroom suburbs with a development pattern antithetical to transit use are not going to support transit service at levels that will make for a reliable network.

    Instead of this “too little butter over too much bread” approach, I would argue in favor of geographically concentrated, high frequency transit connecting areas with a supportive (ie walkable, mixed use) land use pattern. The bus, yes. But abandon attempts at suburban ship-steering; it is not a feasible or desirable task for the bus to take on.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      I agree with you, which is why $1bn++ light rail lines deep into 3rd ring suburbs are something I struggle supporting. And yes, the metro is far too sprawled (jobs and population) to ever have transit connecting every single job. That said, a measly $500m builds all the highway BRT lines (including 55 and Red Rock) at $60m annual operating cost adder (both $2020). This isn’t nothing, but we need to acknowledge that the jobs in Shakopee, Wayzata, Eagan, Brooklyn Center, etc aren’t going anywhere, at least not anytime soon, all for the cost of one Gold Line. Dense job centers drive transit use (at least, more than dense population centers). There are many “employment centers” scattered throughout the region, some more walkable and bikeable than others.

      I also think focusing on employment is really important. Cutting commute time by transit can drastically improve odds of economic mobility for families. Improving total job access for a fixed housing location (or spreading out how many places in the metro one can live without a car or garage, lowering both transportation & housing costs) improves things as well. At least, they should be given more weight than errands or visiting friends **IMO**.

      I tried to make sure this plan included a heavy lift in urban core transit service – every aBRT line imagined and then another 8 lines or extensions in the $500m adder. Plus Midtown Rail. Anything more than that may be overkill on local route improvements (if we implement 1/4 mile stop spacing, all door boarding, green light holds, or other reforms on remaining local routes).

    2. Joe ScottJoe

      I totally agree. Maybe in a more sane political landscape, this proposal would be a good compromise – something that republicans and suburban majorities could stomach and wouldn’t simply find insulting and reject. But we don’t really live in that world, and the state legislature won’t even let us tax ourselves to fund transit, so why bother with an (albeit smart and well thought-out) compromise like this that ultimately throws a lot of good money after bad, and not just try to propose transit where it belongs in the city, where it will be more efficient, operating costs lower over time, and exert pressure on jobs and people to move away from fringe locations instead of to them. These suburban LRT lines are going to make farmers millionaires and ultimately weaken the region.

  3. g bernard hughes

    more frequent bus schedules!!! currently most city bus routes run only every 1/2 hr other than morning/evening. increasing trips to every 20 minutes all day would make the bus so much more useable.

    failing that, revisiting scheduling times would also help. for example, both the 22 & 7 go from downtown mpls to seward. but they both go at the same time. changing the schedule by 15 minutes for 1 of them would mean there would be a bus to seward every 15 minutes – without increasing the number of trips on a single route.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Agreed. I think there’s a whole post to be had on what things we can do to make buses run more frequently, for longer hours of the day. Aside from a funding boost, the quicker buses run, the more revenue hours you have to pump back into the system. I’d say the MC and cities (or counties of they control the roads/lights) should work together to implement:

      – quarter mile stop spacing
      – all door boarding/payment (cash payments & ADA access still at the front)
      – signal preemption

      These combined could speed buses up 10% or more. Beyond that, the Hennepin/Ramsey transit tax I proposed (3/4 cent) would bring in $200m a year. Once any improvements are completed, there’s probably a significant annual budget remaining to pay for enhanced local route service.

      1. Wayne

        – dedicated ROW including bus lanes and tunnels downtown
        – less wiggly bus routes that pick a major road and stick to it instead of doing little stop offs
        – less branches on routes (consistency means you can optimize it more)

  4. Wayne

    Seriously I’d be ecstatic if we poured all $4bn in money intended to make commuting nicer for suburbanites with cars into just increasing frequency of existing bus routes and giving the buses dedicated lanes where bottlenecks exist. Preferrably including a tunnel downtown. You could make that four billion go a *lot* further and get a much better return on your investment by just about any logical metric you can think of for transit effectiveness.

    But, you know, we’ve got swampland to bridge and woods to tunnel through. So whatever. Don’t skimp on the parking construction either, because transit funding is all about building places to store your car.

  5. GlowBoy

    Even though I moved here a year ago from Portland, a metro area half the size of the Twin Cities that just opened its fifth light rail line a couple of months ago, I’m just not seeing enough corridors here that are dense enough to support light rail cost-effectively. Now, or 20 years from now. I think it will take several decades to build up just the core and first ring cities enough to justify a true LRT network.

    I do think the the Blue and Green lines make sense, but things are too spread out here for anything less than a 15-line light rail network to make a real dent. Obviously we can’t afford that economically or politically. Bottineau may also make sense, and maybe SW LRT as far as Hopkins: terminate the rails there, and have synchronized “Green Line” BRT buses take people from there out to EP and Chanhassen!

    Seems to me we just get way more bang for the buck with BRT than with LRT – especially so with aBRT in the city and inner-ring suburbs. Given the finite funding and political support available for transit spending, I’d say let’s work on getting that billion and a half allocated for BRT. Heck, I’d even be happy to see the entire Green and Blue Extensions switched from LRT to BRT if it frees up enough cash to build out the network.

    I know the first experiment with BRT here (Red Line) has been a ridership disappointment, but that’s because we built it to a low-density suburb without a big enough commercial center at the terminus. I’m confident that aBRT will work out much better, as might several other proposed hBRT routes.

    I also like Alex Cecchini’s ideas (call them “BRT lite”) that we could apply to existing bus lines in the shorter term to speed up the buses. The problem is not just that buses aren’t frequent enough; they also aren’t fast enough. They stop too often, and for too long. When I can beat the bus schedule with my bike (I’m not a fast rider) outside a downtown area, something is wrong. Getting rid of 1/8-mile stop spacing would be a good first step.

  6. Mary G.

    Once again, all kinds of comments about suburbanites that are total exaggerations. I live in a barely 2nd tier suburb that’s been around since the 50’s and not out in farmland – “make farmers millionaires,” sheesh. I park my car at a park & ride and take the bus because no route comes anywhere near my house. If I want to take a bus or transit of any kind, I either have to drive halfway to work and park or have my son drive me to a park & ride. (And, by the way, Alex’s plan, while great, still doesn’t address my area at all.) I am not wealthy. My 24-year-old son and I struggle to be a one-car family because we can’t afford two cars. Until late this year, my son didn’t drive and couldn’t get to his retail job at a major shopping center because our circulator bus has an incredibly poor route, poor schedule and is always being threatened with shut down because there are so few riders. Of course, there are so few riders – it doesn’t go anywhere with people or jobs. There are large multi-family housing units with people using housing vouchers, people of color, white people and immigrants of all colors all mixed together in my suburb. Many poor families can’t afford to live in the city any more. I know I couldn’t. I support Alex’s idea of thoughtful investment in standard transit allowing access to the most people. I know I can’t stop people from thinking of people who live beyond the city limits as a bunch of rich entitled white people but it sure does disappoint me.

    1. GlowBoy

      Not sure what the all kinds of total exaggerations are that you’re referring to, but it is generally true that the further out you go from the core cities, the lower the density gets, the more costly it gets to provide transit and the fewer riders you actually get.

      Getting better bang for our transit buck is necessarily going to mean doing more improvements in the core cities than in the 1st ring suburbs, and more improvements in the inner suburbs (including “barely 2nd ring” ones) than in outer suburbs. On the other hand, building light rail to Anoka or Stillwater, for example, probably don’t make much sense as our next big transit projects beyond the Blue and Green Line extensions.

      I think you may be reading things into the comments that aren’t there. From what I can see, while it may not be universal there’s still a fair amount of support for improving transit to “barely 2nd tier suburbs”, not just in the core cities. I think that’s still a major outcome of focusing transit dollars on new aBRT and a few hBRT lines, along with low-cost speed/frequency improvements on existing lines.

      Places such as Hopkins (where I’m typing at the moment), northern Bloomington, the Brooklyns, etc., will still benefit very significantly.

    2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      The “farmland” I’m pretty sure relates to the Gold Line and the Blue Line. If you haven’t checked the proposed entire routes of those two future line, you will see they are proposed to terminate in what are today farm fields. No exaggeration.

    3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      There’s a substantial chicken and egg oriel around “of course no one rides the bus, it doesn’t go anywhere” and “it’s hard to serve transit to areas that aren’t dense enough.”

    4. Nick

      Since this post went up, I’ve felt like I had a hard time putting words to my discomfort with the typical conversations around fantasy transit maps. Mary’s post is part of it, and the other piece that’s inconvenient to consider when complaining about SW and Bottineau is that what we’re doing really isn’t that abnormal (although we may be taking longer to do it). Portland has already been brought up, so let’s just think a second about the ‘progressive’ places that we get compared to pretty frequently: Portland and Denver (and sometimes Salt Lake City). I know Portland and Denver reasonably well and can say with a fair degree of confidence that their major transit investments have also been focused on buzzing by the inner city neighborhoods to speed up commutes to/from the suburbs. Both heavily rely on running in the same right of way as freight rail or freeway corridors, just like we’re debating here. I’d contend the the Green Line through St. Paul is more of an urban transit project that either of them has (save maybe the Interstate Ave line in PDX). Denver’s I-25/225 transit project was a gigantic road-building bonanza that also included some transit. Just cruising population density maps, it looks like most SLC’s early system did the same with the line to Sandy, while the University line is relatively urban.

      And these are the leaders!!! I think what we’re wringing our hands about is a national issue, not a local or regional one. Maybe it’s in the FTA’s funding formulas. Or maybe it’s the difficulty in getting right-of-way for transit projects? Independent of any of these factors, wouldn’t it be better to focus on a ‘Minnesota way’? Build some compromise, as Alex has proposed.

      That our region’s urban population is somewhat arbitrarily bifurcated into two separate core cities is something we can’t change (and why I feel a little defensive whenever someone brings up comparisons to another city about why MN can’t get anything done). So compromise should try to focus as much as possible on a framework and keep an arm’s length from the lines on a map, to avoid parochialism. Maybe then the transit system realignment that occurs in connection with Green, Blue, and Gold plus the opportunity to create some nodes of density (more likely from Hennepin County on Blue than Washington County on Gold, I’ll admit) will mean that we can take the two transfer trips that can only be made on peak and transform them to one transfer trips that can be made all day. And that will address the needs of those increasingly diverse suburbs in lock-step with some improvements in the city as well. Pushing all the improvements into Minneapolis and St. Paul will only increase the acrimony at the legislature, making any sort of progress even harder.

  7. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    I really like the TH 100 bus concept. How about this thought, don’t stop it at Robbinsdale, continue it on 100 all the way to the Fridley commuter rail station and another stop in the Brookdale area.

  8. Brian

    This post gives me hope, so thank you.
    For a long time I have wondered why we throw so much money into expensive, sexy light rail projects, when we could serve SO many more people by improving the buses. Transit shouldn’t be complicated.

    Is there any way to elevate these ideas to transit decision makers?
    Let’s keep this dialogue going and be more cost effective with our transit dollars!

  9. John Charles Wilson

    I strongly support BRT, but why wait for the infrastructure? BRT is essentially a limited-stop bus route plus infrastructure. We could implement the limited-stop bus routes ASAP while the infrastructure is pending/in process.

    For example, we could institute a Route “84L” limited-stop bus from 46th to Rosedale, emulating the A Line as much as possible until the A Line infrastucture is ready.

    The 535 and 465 sort of do the same thing for the Orange Line. If they were combined, and the span and frequency improved to approximate the Orange Line proposal, would this not help create the market for it?

  10. GlowBoy

    Good idea on the limited-stop bus runs, JCW. We didn’t have those in Portland, but Seattle (where I lived prior to Portland) has a number of them, typically stopping only once every mile or two, usually where they intersect other major routes. I used to use them quite a bit.

    Like you say, they could be deployed prior to formal BRT development, and then can also be used in combination with BRT.

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