Note: Service Changes that went into effect on August 19th mean that this trip is no longer possible by public transit.
Riding transit for fun is a pastime of mine. Prior to living in the Twin Cities, I was living in San Francisco, where I grew up in a low-income, relatively car-free household. The only source of entertainment I had was to ride the transit system because my parents paid for my transit pass every month.
At $8, then $10, then $20, it was a bargain. It included rides on the cable cars, as well as a bus that serves the Marin Headlands. I like transit because of its impact it has on people’s lives, particularly those who do not wish to, or cannot operate, a private automobile. Having ridden almost every San Francisco Muni bus route and living there successfully without a car, I decided to continue the car-free transit expedition challenge here in the Twin Cities.
Aware of its impending doom (as well as out of sheer curiosity of both the route and the communities it served), I decided to ride Metro Transit’s Route 865B out to East Bethel, just to see how it was doing, even if it meant getting stranded.*
About The Route (And Its Outstate Connection)
Currently, the route is operated by Metro Transit under contract with Anoka County. It operates between Minneapolis and Paul Parkway Park & Ride in Blaine during commute hours and in the commute direction. Before the service changes of August 19th, three out of nine trips in each direction operated to East Bethel. Outside of Downtown, the bus made three stops: at the Paul Parkway Park & Ride in Blaine, at Family of Christ Lutheran Church in Ham Lake, and at the East Bethel Theater in East Bethel.
As it was previously discussed, there were many attempts to provide transit service on Trunk Highway 65 north of the Twin Cities area, to as far north as Mora in Kanabec County and even possibly as part of the Northern Lights Express rail corridor to Duluth. The latest incarnation was funded by a federal Congestion Management and Air Quality Grant in 2013, which allowed Anoka County and Metro Transit to purchase buses, lease and purchase land for park-and-rides, and operate the demonstration service for three years. Service began in August 2014 with 9 trips in each direction from Paul Parkway Park & Ride in Blaine to Downtown Minneapolis, with 3 of those trips serving Ham Lake and East Bethel. In conjunction with the demonstration project, Isanti and Chisago Counties operated three connecting trips on their Heartland Express service that connects metro-area riders to Isanti and Cambridge.
Earlier this year, grant money to run the service ran out. As a result, the 3 trips operating to Ham Lake and East Bethel was cut back to Blaine effective August 19th. While Metro Transit could continue operating the service with its own funds, ridership between Blaine and East Bethel have averaged around 35-40 riders per day. During my trip, I observed most passengers offboarding at Blaine, with 12 people from the first two afternoon trips making the journey up to East Bethel.
From a planning perspective, the level of ridership does not justify maintaining service on this segment, at least for the time being. Additionally, both communities are not in the Transit Capital Levy District, and Metro Transit does not provide service to communities who do not pay their fair share, so to speak. Also, since service on the 865 was cut back, the 3 connecting Heartland Express trips were also discontinued.
What Could Have Changed?
To be clear, the 865 itself, as it operated to East Bethel, ran well and does not need further improvement. What does need improvement are the amenities that influence ridership along the corridor. Transit shelters at the Park & Rides in Ham Lake and East Bethel could be useful, especially in the winter. Additionally, better outreach could have be done on the Heartland Express service that connects to the 865. (Of course, residential density could play a factor in the struggling ridership, something that can’t be addressed directly within the purview of the transit agencies.)
But before these issues are addressed, these communities need to allow Metro Transit to service them. If it hasn’t happened already, the communities of Ham Lake and East Bethel should petition to join the TCLD. According to Page 120 of this PDF, East Bethel may consider this because the community anticipates transportation improvements and as much as 148% population growth in the future. Second (and again, if it hasn’t been done already), Anoka County, Isanti County, and Metro Transit should conduct a survey of travel habits of Route 865 riders, in order to better tailor service to fit the needs of these communities. Once a recommendation is made based on the results of the survey and implemented, the new Isanti/Chisago-Twin Cities connection needs a significant improvement in how the service was marketed.
Marketing – particularly for the Heartland Express – needs to be drastically improved. I was not aware that the service existed until I saw the cutaway parked at the East Bethel Park & Ride. At the Park & Ride, I saw no signs advertising the Heartland Express. Upon further research, I learned that the commuter route wasn’t even on the agency’s convoluted system map (though it’s possible that the map was updated shortly before the service changes went into effect).
Additionally, information on the Heartland Express online appeared to be distributed among four different websites, and the City of Cambridge was the only entity to mention any service connecting into East Bethel on its website (however, shortly before the service changes, none of these websites mentioned that the East Bethel connection would be eliminated). Even though I could obtain the same information from both County websites, a website managed jointly by the two counties providing unified fare, service, and schedule information would be extremely helpful.
More knowledge of this service would have helped with ridership, not just among commuters, but among those (like me, a relative newcomer to the Twin Cities who wants to explore what Minnesota has to offer without relying on a car as much as possible) who wants to take the occasional car-free weekend getaway.
*Metro Transit buses are always in service, unless the sign explicitly says that they are not in service.
I had no idea this was a thing either! Thanks so much for writing this.
“Marketing – particularly for the Heartland Express – needs to be drastically improved.”
Starting with the name, can we just not with “Heartland”. So non descriptive it could exist anywhere and no where. 😉
For some reason, a lot of bus services in rural Minnesota are called “Heartland Express”. I’ve tried Googling the name to find a unifying website, but haven’t found one. IDK if Heartland Express is some kind of organisation bus services join or what.
Glad you enjoyed it! Well, the Twin Cities connection *used* to exist. One apparently can connect to the Heartland Express at Running Aces, however such an express was nowhere to be found when I rode the 275.
Thanks for writing this Henry!
My aunt and uncle, after a decade of being part time landlords in Northeast Minneapolis before it was full of hipness and brew-pubs, decided to get out of the city and moved to East Bethel and then to 50 acres outside of North Branch. They still commute to downtown and ride the bus. But I think they’re the exception, that most people in the area have jobs in the area or at least the northern suburbs so I get why a bus to downtown isn’t that popular. Same with Northstar, with being able to attract people that refuse to ride buses but are OK with trains you’d think it would be more successful than it is. But again I wonder how many people in Anoka or Elk River work downtown as opposed to say Medtronic or Target North.
You know, NorthStar isn’t doing _that_ bad, given that it basically runs through some low density suburbs and cornfields. There are about 2300,000 employed workers in Anoka and Sherburne county (source: 2015 ACS from American Factfinder).
There are about 150,000 jobs within walking distance of Target Field station (looking at employment by zip code for 55401, 55402, 55403, 55404, 55415). There are about 1.9 million total jobs (source: BLS, see footnote) in the whole metro area, so about 8% of the jobs are within walking distance of Target Field.
8% of 230,000 full time workers is 18400. Of those estimated 18400 Anoka and Sherburne workers who commute downtown, 2400 a day use the NorthStar, or about 13%.
For some comparisons, I calculated 550,000 workers in downtown Boston, compared to 128,000 commuter rail riders (23%) and 2,964,000 workers in downtown NYC compared to 902,000 commuter rail riders (30 %).
So NorthStar really isn’t ‘that’ bad, considering it is one line and it hardly goes anywhere. It just needs a few 10s of billions of dollars for expansion.
I’d love to hear some more thoughts about how to improve Northstar.
Expand track capacity so Northstar service can run all day in both directions. Its such a waste having those trains sit at Target Field all day until the evening rush hour.
And of course extend it to St. Cloud.
I know there’s been all sorts of visions of cute transit oriented development around Northstar stations, but realistically I think the core ridership is going to be people in the exurbs commuting to downtown Minneapolis. Either people already there, or those lured by the prospect of 5 acres without either a brutal commute by auto or having to ride a bus. What’s hurt Northstar is that it developed an unsavory reputation for delays- you don’t want to be late to work, and the housing crash hurt exurban development. So I think it’s just a matter of keeping it reliable and waiting. The metro isn’t getting any smaller and new houses have to go somewhere, and Northstar goes beyond the jurisdiction of the MUSA line where houses are thus significantly cheaper.
I know some people are transit dependent so shuttles to Medtronic and Target might be worthwhile from that regard, but it you live in Elk River or even Big Lake and commute there, it’s just not that bad of a commute to simply drive there as opposed to driving to the station, taking the train, and then getting on a shuttle. As opposed to fighting horrific traffic all the way to downtown and then having to pay to park.
I would suggest building the Foley station. I know it wasn’t built because Northstar isn’t faster from their than the bus, but we’ve traditionally seriously underestimated rail bias in this area.
It looks like there are now shuttle buses from Fridley Station to Medtronic. Now perhaps they should experiment with one from Anoka Station to the Target North Campus.