Twin Cities Transit Expansion Timeline

The Twin Cities region has been slow to establish transitways compared to peer cities. While there have been a few new transitways since our first major transit project was completed, the region has a long way to go and will likely need major funding changes for more routes to be completed and in a reasonable amount of time.

Major events such as another oil price spike and autonomous cars becoming proven technology will also impact the timeline of our transit expansion, for better or worse. More importantly however, the political and public will has to be there for transit expansion. Strong champions are needed if these predictions are to be met or exceeded.

How Far We’ve Come

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2004-The Blue Line (back then known as the Hiawatha Line) light rail opened between Downtown Minneapolis and Mall of America. This was not only our first major transit project, but our first light rail line. It had been 50 years since our streetcar system was shut down.

2009-The Northstar Commuter Rail opened between Downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake, a half completed project originally intended to reach St. Cloud.

2013-The Red Line opened between the Mall of America and Apple Valley. Though marketed as bus rapid transit (BRT), it’s a stretch to call the Red Line that with its limited frequency and lack of dedicated roadway. Depending on who you ask this could be designated our first BRT route.

2014-The Green Line light rail opened between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. It had been 60 years since the downtowns were connected by streetcar.

2016-The A Line, our first arterial bus rapid transit (ABRT) route, opened between South Minneapolis and Rosedale. ABRT having the high frequency and amenities of light rail, but operating entirely in mixed-traffic.

2019-The C Line ABRT will open between Downtown Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center Transit Center.

 

The Near Term Official Timeline

Our transit system expansion going forward (assuming official start date projections are correct, though they haven’t been the most reliable):

2021-The Orange Line BRT will open between Downtown Minneapolis and Burnsville. The D Line ABRT will open between Mall of America and Brooklyn Center Transit Center via Downtown Minneapolis.

2022-At the earliest this is when the Northern Lights Express could open, which will establish intercity rail service between Minneapolis and Duluth. All that is needed to begin construction is funding from the federal government, and to a much lesser extent the state government. This is also the earliest a second daily Amtrak train between St. Paul and Chicago could open. While improved passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Chicago could’ve happened earlier thanks in part to federal funding during the Obama administration, Republicans including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker derailed those plans.

2023-The Green Line Extension (also known as Southwest LRT) will open between Downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. Depending on who you ask the battle will either have been won or lost.

2024-Two major projects will open; the Blue Line Extension (also known as Bottineau LRT) and the Gold Line BRT. These will operate between Downtown Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park, and between Downtown St. Paul and Woodbury respectively. The Gold Line will be the first dedicated BRT service in the Twin Cities region (unless you count the University of Minnesota Transitway as dedicated BRT).

2028-The Rush Line (likely to be called the Purple Line) BRT will open between Downtown St. Paul and White Bear Lake.

2032-The Riverview Corridor, a light rail/streetcar hybrid, will open between Downtown St. Paul and Mall of America via MSP Airport. This will complete an “iron triangle” consisting of the Blue Line, Green Line, and Riverview Corridor connecting the downtowns, MSP Airport, and Mall of America.

 

Hopeful Predictions for the Near Term

2023-An Orange Line Extension further south into Burnsville (likely serving Burnsville Center) and potentially Lakeville, which is currently being studied, will open. The B Line, an ABRT service along Lake Street and Marshall Avenue between the western edge of Minneapolis and Snelling & University in St. Paul, will also open.

2024-The E Line will open. The exact routing is currently being studied, but it’s optimal it will operate between Southdale and the University of Minnesota’s Stadium Village area via Uptown and Downtown Minneapolis.

2025-The long sought after Northstar Line extension to St. Cloud will open.

From there an ABRT route or ABRT extension will open every 1 or 2 years. Optimally the Riverview Corridor study and construction timeline can be faster with an opening of 2030, since the current timeline is extremely long and could be easily shortened with less hoops to jump through from the federal government to receive funding from them (or better yet, not need funding from the federal government).

 

Predictions for the Far Term

In the 2030s there will be extensions of our BRT routes, several new ABRT routes, establishment of rapid transit (either BRT or LRT) along the I-394 Corridor, Midtown Greenway LRT, and one or two new commuter rail routes. Hopefully there will also be a third additional train between the Twin Cities and Chicago, and a second daily train between the Twin Cities and Grand Forks that could perhaps continue north to Winnipeg. Maybe, just maybe, an extension of the Riverview Corridor along I-494 between the Mall of America and Eden Prairie with an opening of 2040 at the earliest. Going into the 2040s the focus will be more on commuter rail and intercity rail routes with the modernization of our transit system in the urban area and parts of the suburban area mostly complete.

 

Our Progress

These predictions don’t include minor improvements to bus service, which are equally important for our transit system. Although a local bus being upgraded from a frequency of every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes won’t receive a ribbon cutting ceremony, it’s a small step in a big plan.

There will be quite a few route openings in the 2020s, but we’ll need to keep up that pace for at least a few decades if we want to stay competitive with other regions and reach climate goals. These predictions also assume autonomous cars won’t replace public transit like the transit skeptics dream of every night. Rather autonomous cars will be mostly used as part of car-sharing and ride-sharing services and last-mile solutions to/from transit stops.

Political and public willingness to fund our current transit system and fund expansion of our transit system are needed. With more people realizing the negatives of cars with traffic and hassles of car ownership and seeing the positives of transit expansion, the willingness to enact funding for transit is slowly shifting toward support.

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28 Responses to Twin Cities Transit Expansion Timeline

  1. karen November 30, 2018 at 12:15 pm #

    StP to MSP street car connection not til 2032. Could have had aBRT in 2016?. That is a long wait just for tracks

    • Monte Castleman December 1, 2018 at 8:51 am #

      It’s worth the wait because of all the people that will ride trains but won’t ride buses.

      • GlowBoy December 3, 2018 at 12:29 am #

        I bet a lot of those folks would ride aBRT, though, once they found out about it. That A Line ride is pretty nice

      • karen December 3, 2018 at 12:45 pm #

        Have you seen the response to A Line BRT? – people willing to ride LRT are also, almost equally interested in riding BRT.

        People with options don’t like regular buses but they will use LRT and BRT, gladly

        • Eric Ecklund December 3, 2018 at 1:02 pm #

          The fact is ABRT wouldn’t gain as much ridership as LRT/streetcar will. The 54 is already very close to ABRT standards, so I doubt the upgrades would’ve had a major increase in ridership.

        • Monte Castleman December 3, 2018 at 1:36 pm #

          I don’t doubt that the A-Line has much higher ridership than a local route, but ultimately it’s still a bus, and I contend it would have a lot higher ridership if they built it as LRT or Streetcar than it does now.

          There’s also probably a lot higher rail bias in the suburbs than in the city where the A-Line is. The Red Line is a bus so it’s being greeted with yawns, which is my prediction for the Orange and Gold Lines, but I have a feeling the Green Line extension is going to be wildly successful because it’s rail. Building Riverview as a bus would mean that a lot fewer people in the suburbs would use it to get to work or events downtown.

  2. karen November 30, 2018 at 12:15 pm #

    And thanks for this great summary

  3. Derek November 30, 2018 at 12:32 pm #

    2032 for Riverview? What is it that makes these projects take so long? Is it mostly a funding issue or is there still a lot that goes into planning routing?

    • Eric Ecklund November 30, 2018 at 7:59 pm #

      A lot of studying, which is required by the federal government in order to receive a full funding grant agreement from them. That’s part of the reason why Southwest LRT has taken so long and will be far beyond the original projected opening year of 2015. Same for Bottineau LRT, which was originally projected to open in 2018.

      Either we need to be less dependent on federal funding, or the rules need to change to speed up the planning and studying process.

  4. Keith November 30, 2018 at 3:15 pm #

    Should’ve just gone with BRT for the Riverview Corridor to have it up and running along with another handful of BRT routes instead of waiting another 14 years for Riverview and no additional routes.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke November 30, 2018 at 4:50 pm #

      OK but the 54 is almost a BRT already.

      • Steve December 4, 2018 at 7:28 am #

        I live in West 7th and ride the 54 almost daily, and I would disagree. Although it is a high frequency limited stop route, it lacks all of the station upgrades that ABRT has (shelters, heat, prepayment, signage, etc).

  5. Brian November 30, 2018 at 3:29 pm #

    Will we ever see LRT to the north? Anoka County abandoned the commuter rail slated to go through Bethel some years ago.

    Of course, commuter rail essentially only goes downtown the way we build it. If you work outside of downtown you’re probably out of luck.

    • Eric Ecklund November 30, 2018 at 8:03 pm #

      My hope is that the Northern Lights Express and a Northstar extension will make all-day regional rail service between Minneapolis and St. Cloud much more likely instead of the status quo peak time- and peak direction-only trips. Any future commuter rail lines should also have an all-day schedule so more people will ride and it will be a lot more convenient than just for the 9-to-5 people living in the suburbs and working downtown.

  6. Marshall November 30, 2018 at 3:41 pm #

    Great summary, thank you Eric. I would love to see some additional LRT in the plan for future years, as well as a more expansive streetcar plan for Minneapolis, but that might be too expensive of a dream.

  7. Andy E November 30, 2018 at 7:49 pm #

    Now that the Green Line extension is being built, the Blue Line extension is fully planned, and preliminary work is being done on the St Paul – MOA line, it is time to look into the future at what could be done. And, more important, it is time to start preliminary community outreach and design on what could be done so that in a decade there are more projects ready to go. The metro should be continually looking at the projects that will follow those currently in the pipeline and making preliminary plans so that we can have continuous expansion of the transit system going on. Basically, what is being done with BRT (planning and working on lines that are 3rd or 4th in line) should be done for our rail transit as well. I think three projects should be looked at today for implementation in the 2020s and openings in the 2030s.

    1) Arden Hills/Nicollet/MOA. This would be a LRT/Subway line running from the future Arden Hills Armory development site to downtown Minneapolis, where it would drop below grade and run as a subway along Nicollet to Lake Street, there climbing back to grade and continuing on Nicollet on to MOA. Would allow for greatly increased density in the Arden Development as well as serve the central part of both North and South Minneapolis. This line would probably become the second most used transit line after the Green Line (which is only going to grow with the extension). Finally, while extremely expensive, running a subway through DT Minneapolis to Lake would allow for rapid connections along the most developed parts of the route and spur a huge amount of development along Nicollet north of that horribly K-Mart.

    2) SWLRT/Lake/Summit or Grant/St Paul. This line would run along the Green Line extension up to Lake, where it would then turn East and run along Lake (and maybe the bike trench) to the river, where it would cross and turn South to Summit or Grand, turning back East until it reaches DT Saint Paul. This line would provide a key East/West connection to both cities, connect multiple universities with St Paul, and allow for increased mobility options along two major commercial corridors (Lake and Grand).

    3) MOA/Nicollet/Larpenteur/St Paul. This line from St Anthony to MOA would be on the same line as the first line (so heavy service on the most populated portion of the line). In St Anthony, the line would go East on Hennepin/Larpenteur until it reaches Edgerton/Payne streets, where it would turn South into Union Station. This line would connect the State Fair (yeah, only a week per year), but also reach tens of thousands of lower-middle class residents with connections to both downtowns and the MOA. No one would ever take the line end to end, but all of the connections within the line would drastically improve transit options for a lot of people and expand access to jobs and business.

  8. David Markle
    David Markle December 1, 2018 at 11:17 am #

    The Gold Line project, with its fundamental purpose of promoting development, is a disgrace of our transit planning.

  9. Scott December 1, 2018 at 3:57 pm #

    Nice article.

    I just don’t get why MSP’s transit planners are unable to identify meaningful transit improvements for Minneapolis outside a handful of ABRT and the Midtown Greenway. The city already has decent population densities, has a transit-friendly land use pattern, a downtown with lots of jobs, and lots of potential for new riders/ a large transit dependent population. The handful of ABRT routes are not going to make much difference and minor tweaks to crappy bus service isn’t going to make bus service much better.

    Honestly, how much would it cost to construct a subway from downtown Minneapolis under Hennepin, Lyndale, or Nicollet to Lake St.? How about into Northeast up Central to Columbia Heights? Wouldn’t that be much more useful than the almost $2 billion Blue Line extension or hundreds of millions for the Gold Line BRT, which serve un-walkable, car-oriented places?

    Is the only answer that suburban policy-makers wouldn’t allow that much funding to go into Minneapolis? Could the City of Minneapolis or Hennepin County kick in to help build some of this stuff or support upgraded service? Let’s do something different because this regional transit vision for the next 20 years sucks.

    • Eric Ecklund December 1, 2018 at 4:17 pm #

      A subway could definitely be built in the Twin Cities, and there have been very minor mentions of it in transit plans for around 40 years. Of course, almost no politician wants to be the one to bring it up because of how much it would cost and it would make the Green Line Extension, currently our biggest public works project in state history, look tiny in comparison.

      Besides rebuilding the Green Line between Minneapolis and St. Paul as a subway, the most likely route for a subway is north-south through Downtown Minneapolis.

      Just as with these other transit projects, a subway has to have political and public will to pull the trigger. For the past few decades we’ve done a lot of talking, but not many politicians are bold enough to say let’s do it. As younger people who are more likely to support transit expansion hold public office that will hopefully change as well.

      • Brian December 1, 2018 at 9:46 pm #

        A Subway would likely never get built due to cost. The state didn’t want to spend any money on Southwest LRT so how likely is a subway? It probably wouldn’t go into operation before 2040 based on how long Southwest LRt took to get routed, debated, and funded.

        I would rather see the bus tunnel through downtown that comes up from time to time.

        • Eric Ecklund December 1, 2018 at 10:21 pm #

          If by “the state” you mean politicians from rural Minnesota who label every train as light rail, then yeah of course they wouldn’t want to fund a subway, but that doesn’t mean they will always be calling the shots when it comes to transportation funding.

          I’m not saying a subway would be built here before 2040, but I think after 2040 it’s anyone’s guess.

          A bus tunnel would require either an expensive ventilation system for the diesel fumes or every bus run on electricity either fully or just in the tunnel. And if you’re building a tunnel for buses you might as well have light rail trains be able to use it too.

        • helsinki December 4, 2018 at 9:24 am #

          Seems like the major driver of urban rail construction costs in the US isn’t tunneling (when that is part of the project), but rather inflated staffing, including highly-paid consultants who produce useless redundant studies, a byzantine and hostile regulatory framework, and a lack of competition among contractors. NYT piece linked here on Planetizen is obviously NYC specific, but arguably the trend is nationwide: https://www.planetizen.com/news/2018/01/96537-investigation-new-yorks-record-shattering-subway-construction-costs

  10. Scott December 1, 2018 at 5:07 pm #

    So, how much would it cost for a 2.5 mile line under downtown Minneapolis under Nicollet to Lake St.? The 2-mile Central Subway in San Francisco between Chinatown and the ballpark will cost $1.6 billion, which is less than both the Green and Blue line extensions. Soil conditions, labor/ land prices, and other factors would make it less expensive here, right? Then, couldn’t the line be extended at a future date into Northeast or south?

    What about streetcars that have their own right-of way in the street? They don’t have to run in mixed traffic and stop every two blocks making them painfully slow.

    The Minneapolis 2040 Plan envisions all kinds of population growth and assumes transit will magically get better with more people. Yet, Metro Transit doesn’t have any money to upgrade bus frequency or speeds. Buses will continue to be stuck in car traffic. I’m just so sick of the awful bus service in Minneapolis and there appears to be no vision for a future where it is any better. I do not ever want to go to Eden Prarie, Woodbury, or Brooklyn Park, but those are the places getting the most expensive transit improvements in the coming years.

  11. karen December 3, 2018 at 12:51 pm #

    If we are going to go big with transit spending (subway, LRT in expensive places) I’d much rather us go all in on first class aBRT lines with high quality buses, within the cities and connecting to nodes around region, with LRT only in most high volume routes that make sense to have train capacities.

    Get a grid of good electric buses with plenty of capacity on high frequency (eveyr 10 min, every 5 mins?) and transit ridership way up.
    see response to our very limited BRT so far.

    • Eric Ecklund December 4, 2018 at 7:34 am #

      Two problems with that:

      1) The suburbs won’t pay for an ABRT system if it doesn’t serve them. That’s why Minneapolis and St. Paul (and any suburb that does get ABRT service) should dedicate funding for such a system.

      2) Bus driver shortage. I already have concerns with the C Line coming soon, and eventually all the other BRT and ABRT routes. Without autonomous buses or a lot of new drivers are these trunk lines going to take away drivers and buses from non rapid transit routes?

      • Lou Miranda December 4, 2018 at 8:05 am #

        1) I think Mpls & St. Paul, and even most first-ring suburbs, would welcome self-determination for transit solutions. Despite loud protestations from a small minority of residents, I think most people in the urban core want more transit solutions.

        2) The bus driver shortage is simply a result of our (overheated?) economy. Give it a year or two or three, max, and there will be plenty of drivers. And, as you say, maybe someday there will be autonomous buses, although that sounds further away every year.

      • Joey Senkyr
        Joey Senkyr December 4, 2018 at 11:24 am #

        The aBRT routes won’t significantly impact the bus driver shortage, as they’re mostly replacing existing high-frequency routes. The C Line, for example, will run buses every ten minutes, but the 19 will not be running every ten minutes anymore, so the drivers will just switch over. Since the C Line will be about 25% faster than the 19, it’ll use fewer drivers than the 19 does now, so there will be a few driver-hours left over to operate the remaining infrequent 19 service, until ridership withers away and it can get cut down like the 16 was this month.

    • Lou Miranda December 4, 2018 at 8:00 am #

      1. I agree, we should go all-in on BRT with electric buses, signal priority for buses if not also dedicated lanes for buses. This should be our short term plan to get people out of cars, and handle future population growth. But buses are not ideal for the highest-trafficked areas, so…

      2. Think of BRT like bike sharrows: it’s like training wheels for transit. Sharrows & BRT (& highway lids/caps, but let’s not go there) are baby steps on the way to the real solution for the heaviest-trafficked routes. What we really want (but costs $$ and political capital) are separated, dedicated bikeways and rail. But the sharrows (and painted bike lanes) and BRT have to come first, to get people used to the idea, and to show some usage. Not every BRT needs to become rail (LRT or streetcar or whatever), but the busiest ones certainly should be. This is our medium-term plan.

      3. Our long-term plan, IF WE ARE EVER TO AVOID CATASTROPHIC CLIMATE CHANGE, is to:

      (a) ACCELERATE these plans by many years, possibly also adding subways if Elon Musk’s The Boring Company truly reduces burrowing costs by an order of magnitude, and

      (b) STOP THINKING OF RAIL/TRANSIT AS ONLY BEING HUB-AND-SPOKE and create a NETWORK of transit solutions. Repurpose or augment inner ring highways (94, 35, 280, 100) with rail, as we reduce or eliminate the use of private cars in the downtowns (Mpls, St. Paul, and Southdale 😉), and slowly work out from there. Our streetcar system had hub-and-spoke elements and grid system elements; our modern transit system must do the same.

      (c) Execute on our Mpls2040 plan, and all the other density- and multimodal transit-driven comp plans by St. Paul and the suburbs. Making transit effective enough to replace cars means changing our land use to make housing, jobs, shopping, & entertainment closer to each other.

      This great article shows our current plans, yet by the time the Riverview Corridor is planned and built, we’ll be having tornadoes in the winter and our summer temperatures will be consistently in the 90s or higher.

      Of course, this is all dependent upon a federal government that is effective, and federal, state, & local initiatives that are well funded and in sync, much like how the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System was born, planned, and executed.

      Will our leaders step up to the challenge?

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