Ride the Bus to Stillwater After Work Before They Cut Service

Img 3499

The 294 pulls up to board passengers in downtown St. Paul. March 1, 2018

Act on this fast! On March 9, Metro Transit plans to severely cut service on express route 294. The Metro Transit line runs weekdays between St. Paul and Stillwater, making stops near 3M, in Oakdale and in Lake Elmo.

Currently, the 294 has eight trips going to Stillwater (three in the morning, five in the afternoon) and nine trips going to St. Paul (six in the morning, three in the afternoon). You still will be able to take the bus to Stillwater after March 9. It just gets more complicated.

  • You will be able to take TransitLink, which uses a large van to fill in the gaps of standard bus service, on all Stillwater runs if you want to visit downtown.
  • If you prefer a fixed-route bus, however, only seven trips will operate in each direction after March 9.
  • Trips operating from St. Paul to Stillwater will not serve downtown Stillwater (the Water and Myrtle stop) in the morning, and only two trips will serve it in the afternoon.
  • Only three trips operating from Stillwater to St. Paul will serve downtown Stillwater: two in the morning and one in the afternoon. The morning trips serving downtown Stillwater start at the St. Croix Valley Rec Center on the western edge of town. 
Img 3130

A Metro Transit bus passes by the Washington County courthouse on March 1, 2018.

The new schedule will leave little time, if any, to explore Stillwater after work. These changes will render the 294 a commuter line, its sole purpose being to get people to and from work. It would still be possible to take the 294 to see Stillwater’s scenic downtown. But you would need to get to a bus stop early in downtown St. Paul and then walk about an hour from the final stop to downtown Stillwater.

Stillwater is a magical place. It’s the birthplace of Minnesota, for one. Highlights for visitors include stairs with awesome views of the St. Croix River, as well as a historic lift bridge and Tremblay’s Sweets, located in the heart of the charming downtown. Stillwater also has an immaculate historic courthouse, with even greater views of town.

All of this reminds me of my California home. San Francisco is a city known for its hills and views, which I miss. Stillwater comes close.

The journey to Stillwater via bus is as magical as the town itself. Imagine riding an articulated bus past barns and grain silos. You’ll also see a pet hospital with carvings of different animals attached to the mailboxes.

Img 3611

North Star Farm, Lake Elmo, Minnesota. March 1, 2018


Img 2896 2

One of the many animal-adapted mailboxes off Stillwater Boulevard in Lake Elmo. March 1, 2018.

Cutting service on the 294 makes it impossible for those who don’t want to drive — or have no access to a car — to explore this place. Spontaneity is important in life. Why should someone need their own motorized vehicle to make spontaneous stops along the way to their destination (and find parking while they’re at it), when they could just get off a bus, wander for a bit and then wait for the next bus?

No wonder some people think they need a car to get around the Twin Cities. In a metro area with more limited transit service than other cities (and than I am accustomed to), people want to be able to get where they want, when they want. That is the sentiment expressed by my immigrant Chinese parents, colleagues from my terms of public service and many of my friends. Mind you, most of them are Millennials.  

Img 3298

Stillwater Lift Bridge. March 1, 2018

A recent report to the Legislature from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency showed that transportation is the state’s largest source of greenhouse gases. We are never going to reduce carbon emissions so long as the state and Metro Transit cut transit service and treat the system as if it matters only to those actively contributing to our economy.

We also need to consider how families visiting their relatives in prison will be affected by the changes on route 294. The 294 is a 33-minute walk from the Minnesota Correctional Facility in nearby Bayport. More than 1,600 adult male felons are incarcerated there. For families without cars, the 294 is a sure way to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones.

The problem is, both the old and new bus schedules  as well as the prison’s own schedule — allow too little time for family visits. What if family members have only weekends off? Even TransitLink doesn’t run on weekends. It’s also more expensive than riding a fixed-route bus.

Visits reduce recidivism. If people can’t visit prisoners, the prison cycle continues and crime remains a problem. Even video visits, which require no physical travel, are accessible only to “offenders” without misconduct on their record; and at a cost of almost $10 per half hour, video visits may be out of reach for inmates, who earn far less than minimum wage at their prison jobs. 

Img 9770

Downtown Stillwater. August 23, 2017.

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I like leveraging transit to explore and get around. Coincidentally, the Bay Area also has a route 294, which I rode twice to visit the Peninsula coast. I didn’t have a license or a car, and the Bay Area 294, operated by SamTrans, allowed me to take a solitary journey — and on a route more rider-friendly than the Stillwater 294.

Federal law determines which communities receive funding for fixed-route service. Neither Stillwater, Minnesota nor Half Moon Bay, California receives funds for fixed-route transit service because both towns are under 50,000 in population. So maybe the disparity in my experience with the two routes owes to California investing more money in transit than Minnesota does.

The state desperately needs to set its transit priorities straight in the current legislative session —  not only to save our planet from impending doom, but also to save . . . ourselves.

Img 9761

A Metro Transit bus makes its descent into downtown Stillwater on August 23, 2017.

More changes are in store on Metro Transit routes beginning March 9. Later this week on streets.mn, former Metro Transit planner and manager Aaron Isaacs will analyze some of these changes. Stay tuned.

Ride the 294 to Stillwater

Here’s your plan for a brief but scenic trip to Stillwater after work — before the route changes March 9:

  • Get to 5th and Minnesota in downtown St. Paul by 3:35 p.m.
  • Board the 294 around 3:44 p.m.
  • Arrive in Stillwater about 4:30 p.m. Don’t get off at the St. Croix Valley (Rec Center) Park & Ride; the walk to downtown Stillwater from here is at least an hour.
    • For easy access to a stairway with great views of the bridge, get off at Greeley and Oak. Walk one block north to Olive, then continue east until 4th, then make a left
    • For the Courthouse, get off at Pine and 4th.
    • For the waterfront, get off at Water and Myrtle.
  • Be at Water and Myrtle by 6 p.m. for your return trip to the Twin Cities.
  • Get on the last 294 back to downtown St. Paul about 6:10 p.m.
  • Arrive in downtown St. Paul at around 7:10 p.m.

If you miss the last bus to downtown, one more bus arrives just after 6:30 p.m. Be forewarned, however, that the bus goes straight to East Metro Garage after returning to the Park & Ride, and the driver might not let you come along.

See schedules for Route 294 before the March 9 service changes.
See schedules for Route 294 after the March 9 service changes.


Join Transit Riders Union at House Field Hearing

As part of the current legislative session, the Minnesota House of Representatives’ Transportation, Finance and Policy Division will be holding a field hearing on transportation issues in north Minneapolis. Here is your chance to talk about the transportation issues that are near and dear to your heart.

Transportation Field Hearing
Tuesday, February 26, 6–8:30 p.m.
North High School, 1500 James St. N., Minneapolis
Metro Transit Lines: 5, 7
RSVP: Click here to sign up.
Click here to sign up to speak beforehand. The e-mail address is: John.Howe@house.mn

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

About H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues. Find them on a bus of all types, the sidewalk, bike lane, hiking trail or perhaps the occasional carshare vehicle, camera and perhaps watercolor set or mushroom brush in tow, in your community or state or regional park regardless of season. If you can’t find them, they’re probably cooking, writing, curating an archive of wall art or brochures, playing board games, sewing or cuddling with their cat. Follow on Twitter: @h_pan3 or Instagram: @hpphmore or on Mastodon: @hpan3@newsie.social. See bylines after March 2020 in Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Racket, Minnesota Reformer, Next City, The Guardian, Daily Yonder and MinnPost.

30 thoughts on “Ride the Bus to Stillwater After Work Before They Cut Service

  1. Frank Phelan

    It’d be pretty cool to bus it out to Stillwater on a nice day, and throw my bike on the rack. It’d be a great way to explore the area.

    1. Pine SalicaPine Salica

      That sounds great, honestly. I wonder if there’ll be a bit of competition for those rack spots on fine days!

  2. Eric Ecklund

    Maybe not in the winter, but during the summer this route would be great with all-day and weekend service.

    I hope someday we can get regional rail between St. Paul and Stillwater via the Union Pacific line. The main issues other than Union Pacific are getting trains to hook north to Stillwater and getting right-of-way to get into Downtown Stillwater.

    1. Andrew Evans

      You’re talking about what the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition is doing to get service out to Eau Clare, through Stillwater.

      1. Eric Ecklund

        No I’m not, because that wouldn’t serve Downtown Stillwater and only run four times per day if I remember their proposal right.

        1. Andrew Evans

          So you want a dedicated train that would cost millions to billions to serve an area that’s seeing bus service curtailed because of potential lack of ridership?


          1. Eric Ecklund

            By your logic why are we spending billions on light rail to the suburbs? Why are we spending hundreds of millions on BRT to the suburbs?

            You know the saying “if you build it they will come”? Well it applies to transit.

            1. Andrew Evans

              Who said I was against light rail transit development, or even other rail links?

              The only thing I’m really against is how much they cost, and due to that I’m not sure how realistic some of these plans are. The rail link to EC has been vetted, and from what they say has the numbers to make it work. It would be a great start to create or expand on regional rail. There is also a proposal to run the rail link up to St. Cloud and even Little Falls. That’s another great proposal that has support of quite a few people along the line, and could happen in the future.

              The only issue I had with SW rail was that they let the bike path lovers get in the way and stall what was to me a decent plan. I’m all for the other proposed light rail extension up to the NW burbs, although I do wish there was a way to have routed it through North, but I’m fine with the current plan.

              You’re the one against a pretty viable plan because it doesn’t include a stop in downtown Stillwater, and/or doesn’t run when you feel it would be convenient.

  3. Karl

    What’s the ridership like on the runs that are being cut? Going to 7 runs each way from current 9 WB and 8 EB doesn’t look like a huge service cut if those busses can be better utilized elsewhere.

  4. Cobo R

    To play devils advocate, what are the ridership numbers? Isn’t an empty bus worse for the environment than no bus at all?

    I am all for transit, but some practical considerations need to be made.

    A typical city bus only gets ~3-6 miles per gallon. You need at least 9 people in it to be more fuel efficient than a car. And diesel fumes are typically worse than gasoline fumes for air quality.

    Yes there is the whole equity and access angle, and the whole chicken and the egg thing. But how realistic is expanded bus service as a way to solve these issues and help solve climate change considering how expensive it is? New buses cost $300K-$500K, drivers are $50k – $80K per year, and fuel and maintenance isn’t free.

    This site likes to point out how much subsidy roads get for private cars, But A bus with only 5 people on it is getting a subsidy of ~$20 per rider per trip. This is a big reason why commuter routes get priority, there is only soo much money.

    1. Joe

      I get your point, but then you end with this: “This is a big reason why commuter routes get priority, there is only soo much money”, which doesn’t follow in any way from your previous paragraphs. By far the highest ridership/mile routes are the core city routes. Routes 5, 18, 21, 6, 10, 3, etc all have far more riders, and yet only half of those are scheduled for any upgrades, and most of those are at least 5 years out. Once you incorporate park and ride costs, commuter routes are far, far less efficient than urban routes.

      So the reason why commuter routes get priority is not their cost, or efficiency. It is presumably because they have the support of wealthier, whiter, suburban constituencies.

  5. Aaron IsaacsAa

    The writer says these changes will turn the 294 into a commuter line. That’s all it has been for many years. The park-ride generates most of the ridership, which is why one of the long loops through town was eliminated.

    Years ago Metro Transit experimented with weekend service to the prison for visitors of inmates. Ridership was extremely low and the service was unsustainable.

    The limited subsidy that’s available has to leverage as much ridership and fare revenue as possible. That just the reality of it.

    1. Eric Ecklund

      Did this weekend service serve Downtown Stillwater too? How many trips were there?

      Before calling it a failure, perhaps the execution of this service was a failure but it doesn’t mean weekend and/or all-day weekday service will be a failure no matter what.

      And as for “limited subsidy”, well we just need to get politicians who are in favor of more funding to transit. When a politician says we don’t have the funding it means they do have the funding, but they would rather spend it on something else.

      1. Cobo R

        Buses are very expensive to operate…. If ridership is extremely low, a limo might be more cost effective…

        1. H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏Henry Pan Post author

          The point of the entire post was that there needs to be transit investment, not whether or not something is worthwhile to keep. The 294 could run with cutaways for all I care (less costly to maintain than a diesel bus). Maybe there could be a partnership with Stillwater merchants to encourage visitors by transit? One thing that I’ve been kicking around since I moved here is writing a book on how you can get to different parts of the Twin Cities by transit, geared towards visitors.

          But going from St. Paul to the Park & Ride in Stillwater in the afternoon, those buses are packed (with standing room). I don’t have complete ridership numbers.

        2. Eric Ecklund

          If ridership is extremely low they should be asking why it’s low, not immediately cutting it.

          So why could ridership be low on this route? Here are several factors:
          -low gas prices, something the Met Council can’t control
          -fare hike, which the Met Council can control but it’s also an issue of getting funding
          -our freeway system (in this instance particularly Highway 36 and I-94) making it easy and (part of the time) quick to drive places assuming you have a license and a car, something the Met Council can control to a limited extent but also a county, state, and federal issue
          -lack of off-peak trips, something the Met Council can control but is a funding issue
          -lack of more frequent trips during rush hours, again something the Met Council can control but is a funding issue
          -lack of awareness by the public about this route, once again something the Met Council can control
          -lack of pedestrian infrastructure to/from bus stops, which the Met Council can control to a limited extent but mainly a city and county issue
          -seasonal dip; I don’t know how many non-park & riders there are for this route, but is it possible that due to the snow blocking sidewalks and bus stops that people who choose the bus take another mode of transportation instead?

          With the logic of cutting service or routes when ridership is low, then by now there would be a lot of transit deserts in the suburban area and pockets of transit desert in the urban areas. This isn’t to say 294 should run every 10 minutes all day everyday, but they should be looking at why a bus route is struggling and what can be done to mitigate those issues instead of sending it to the chopping block.

          1. Monte Castleman

            I’d also suggest there’s a lot of overlap between “people that refuse to ride buses” and “people that hang out in downtown Stillwater.”

            The city realizes that it’s not a good thing to have acres of surface parking between the downtown and the river, but replacing it with structured parking on the other edge of downtown would cost a lot of money, and people aren’t using the one ramp that’s already built. Having a remote surface lot and a shuttle bus was rejected because “no one will be willing to ride a shuttle bus”

            Really, how many people are going to be willing to ride a bus to downtown Sillwater to hang out when they need to work the next day? Even bars right in the city have to have happy hour or people wouldn’t come. To a lot of people weeknights are for chores and relaxing. Especially now in the middle of winter.

      2. John Charles Wilson

        Stillwater used to be served by the Saint Paul 12D (back when duplicate route numbers in Saint Paul and Minneapolis existed). It ran 7 days a week via E. 6th, Minnehaha, and Stillwater Rd. Service was all day but very irregular except on Sunday, when for trips ran two hours apart. Ridership was thin east of Hwy. 120 except at rush hour and on the Sunday prison runs (which went to DT Stillwater too). I lived near E. 6th and used it to shop at the Stillwater Walmart, which was the easiest one to get to because it was a one-seat ride.

  6. Pete Voyd

    “In a metro area with more limited transit service than other cities (and than I am accustomed to),”

    So very sorry this humble city is not up to your expectations.

    “people want to be able to get where they want, when they want”

    Er, there is Uber and Lyft.

    1. Eric Ecklund

      This region has a very poor transit system unless you’re trying to get to either downtown, and even then it’s not the greatest.

      Also do you realize how expensive Uber and Lyft can be, especially going to a place like Stillwater? But hey, let them eat cake!

    2. H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏Henry Pan Post author

      Put it this way: I love Metro Transit and want to make it better. Lyft and Uber are mighty expensive, and every driver is different!

      1. Andrew Evans


        Expensive would be running buses on routes with a lack of ridership and demand. Both in terms of budget, and environment.

        Unless we want buses running everywhere at every time, along with the fee hike and tax increases.

        1. Jeb RachJeb Rach


          Certainly we should make sure that we’re not running service well beyond what ridership demands. But there’s still a basic accessibility issue when many of our region’s towns can’t be accessed at all (except perhaps for Metro Mobility) on weekends without relying on some sort of private vehicle ownership – after all, Uber, Lyft, and taxis are all privately owned vehicles, and Uber and Lyft currently run in the red despite their ride costs, so that may not be sustainable long-term.

          A strong interim step would be to drastically improve Transit Link accessibility and span of service; right now it requires scheduling a trip well in advance, via phone, and only operates in most areas on weekdays during normal business hours. Expanding to evening and weekend service, allowing truly on-demand ride scheduling, and having alternatives to a phone call to schedule (web-based being the most likely) could help to improve access and find where pent-up demand for transit service is.

    3. Andrew Evans

      Pete, that’s the whole point.

      I get the chicken and egg thing about transit, I really do. But choosing to live without a car, especially in an area like this, as opposed to the coasts, has ramifications in that a person can’t get around as they wish when they wish. As you said, that’s what Uber and Lyft are for, and that’s what a rental car is for.

      I could be reaching here, but where we’ve stayed in BFE southern France they do have bus service to these small towns. It’s run in the winter maybe once or twice a day, and isn’t really setup for sight seeing trips. Even in the summer, I doubt the service is ramped up to the point where someone could take an afternoon off and go see the sights, then come back at a convenient time.

      1. Eric Ecklund

        I’ve been to a rural part of Italy (specifically the Piedmont region) that had all-day regional bus service. You can see the rolling vineyards and visit the small towns without having to drive and figure out how to navigate their confusing road network.

        Was it frequent? No, but it was good enough.

Comments are closed.