Can Suburb-to-Suburb Express Service Work in the Twin Cities?

Two years ago Route 494 began service between Shakopee and Maple Grove as part of a partnership between Southwest Transit, Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, Plymouth Metrolink, and Maple Grove Transit. There were station stops at Marschall Road Transit Station in Shakopee, Southwest Station in Eden Prairie, United Healthcare and Optum campuses in Minnetonka, Hopkins Crossroad Park & Ride in Minnetonka, Station 73 in Plymouth, and Maple Grove Transit Station. The service lasted only three months with an average weekday ridership of 20 (yes you read that correctly). Soon after Route 495 between Marschall Road Transit Station and the Mall of America with limited service to the Amazon Fulfillment Center began with better results.

First day of service for Route 494. A rare chance to see suburban opt-out operators in different territories such as this MVTA bus at Southwest Station.

I rode Route 494 twice. Once just for fun between Maple Grove and Southwest Station, and transferred to a local route to Bloomington. The other time it was one of only a few options available to get back across the river after a long bike ride from Bloomington to Shakopee.

So why did Route 494 fail? It was an express service with most stations only being park & rides, not places where people actually live and work. It was expected that riders would get off at a transit station and transfer to a suburban local route or Dial-a-Ride service.

Despite this failure, the Metropolitan Council is studying “bus rapid transit” (that term being used loosely as I’ll explain later on) either between Shakopee and Minneapolis or between Shakopee and Brooklyn Park along Highway 169. In 2014 Highway 169 was one of several corridors studied for highway bus rapid transit. Total construction cost was estimated to be $46.4 million, an annual operating cost of approximately $8.9 million, and a projected daily ridership of 7,800 by 2030. However most of the stations would be located at entrance/exit ramps, and so would require riders to either transfer to/from a local route or walk to/from their actual destination. This proposal would not pass for official standards of bus rapid transit as it would operate mostly in mixed traffic, an off-peak frequency of 20-30 minutes, and very limited availability to transfer to other transit routes. It would be the Red Line of the west metro. The study recommended that before most of these corridors jump straight to BRT a regular service is provided and in theory the transit market matures overtime to warrant improvements and possibly eventually introduce rapid transit.

Can highway BRT work in the Twin Cities? Yes, but done correctly and in the right corridors. Can express suburb-to-suburb service work in the Twin Cities? Not for the foreseeable future, and its best to focus on expanding and improving the hub-and-spoke routes first. However a limited-stop suburb-to-suburb service could work. This is already done on hub-and-spoke routes including Route 535 along the I-35W Corridor (to be replaced by the Orange Line in the near future) and Route 645 along the I-394 Corridor. Instead of only serving park & rides a limited-stop service along the Highway 169 Corridor could provide an option for suburban residents who are traveling short distances to other suburbs, people (particularly suburbanites) who depend on transit, and bridge the gap between suburban transit operators’ territories (something that is long overdue).

A limited-stop service would require a small investment for buses, standard bus stop signs, intersection modifications in certain areas, and a few online stops to serve neighborhoods while buses remain on the freeway. Starting in the Arbor Lakes area of Maple Grove and ending at Marschall Road Transit Station, this route would directly serve numerous regional destinations where people live and work, but also a few transit stations and intersections for transfers to other transit routes.

A cheap way to implement an online bus station. Unlike the bus stop at Lake Street & I-35W, this one in Oslo, Norway is easily accessible whether you walk, bike, or are disabled. There are a few of these around Oslo used by limited-stop and express buses.

I had little hope in Route 494 succeeding, and whomever decided an express park & ride-to-park & ride service was the best option either doesn’t use transit or didn’t consult with the public and employers about how this should be implemented. While a limited-stop service such as the one I propose likely wouldn’t have many riders going from Maple Grove to Shakopee and vice versa, it would serve a much larger potential ridership base than Route 494 and make traveling by transit between bordering suburbs much easier.

About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.