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.