The Orange Line bus rapid transit (BRT) between Downtown Minneapolis and Burnsville is now under construction and expected to open in 2021. This will bring high frequency bus service to the I-35W Corridor and serve stops in Burnsville, Bloomington, Richfield, South Minneapolis, and Downtown Minneapolis. Transit upgrades include new bus-only ramps from the freeway into and out of downtown, and new bus stations with the most notable being at Lake Street & I-35W.
Meanwhile the existing Red Line BRT (if it can be called that) continues to have low ridership and be a glorified bus shuttle between Mall of America, Eagan, and Apple Valley. According to the Metropolitan Council the Red Line carried 270,400 riders in 2017, which if split evenly would be approximately 740 riders per day. However, that hasn’t stopped planners from studying a southern extension to Lakeville, which would likely produce very little additional riders and serve an area currently not built with transit in mind. Before we spend more resources on a southern extension we should be looking at a northern extension of the Red Line that can take advantage of some of the infrastructure upgrades being built for the Orange Line.
North Extension Routing
From Mall of America a northern extension would be routed on Highway 77, Highway 62, and I-35W to Downtown Minneapolis. Red Line buses may also use 66th Street and Portland Avenue in order to better serve Richfield and provide easier transfers to local bus routes including a high frequency east-west service that goes to Southdale Center. The Red Line would share bus stations with the Orange Line on the median of I-35W at 46th Street and Lake Street. In downtown both routes would share stations and use the bus-only lanes on Marquette and 2nd Avenues. Most of the cost for a northern extension would be buying additional buses and building stations in Richfield. Thanks to the Orange Line the cost of a northern extension would be cheap as it would mostly utilize existing infrastructure.
Competing with the Blue Line?
While a northern extension of the Red Line has been discussed, as far as I know it has never been seriously considered due to concerns that it would take away riders from the Blue Line who are traveling between the Mall of America and Downtown Minneapolis. To an extent these routes would compete for riders, but for several reasons it’s highly unlikely the Red Line would take away a significant amount of riders. First there’s the fact the Red Line is a bus while the Blue Line is a train; some people will choose the train over the bus no matter what. Secondly the travel time between Mall of America and downtown would be very similar, so there would be little if any travel time advantage taking the Red Line. Third is the frequency of each service; the Blue Line has 10 minute frequency while the Red Line has 20 minute frequency, which makes the Blue Line more attractive. Lastly the Blue Line has dedicated right-of-way while the Red Line is operating in traffic for most of the route, which again makes the Blue Line more attractive to people who can choose to take either route between Mall of America and downtown. The northern extension would also have the side benefit of providing a backup service between Mall of America and downtown if there is a service disruption or maintenance project on the Blue Line, which could reduce the crowding on the bus replacement service for the Blue Line.
Benefits of a Northern Extension
The main purpose of a northern extension is to bring better transit to Richfield and South Minneapolis where the development and population are more likely to use it than auto-centric and lower density developments in Lakeville. While there would only be a few stops through Richfield and South Minneapolis, the northern extension opens up new opportunities for people trying to get places; not just between downtown and the suburbs, but also for example between a person’s job at Mall of America and their apartment near the Lake Street & I-35W Station, or between eastern Richfield and Uptown without having to go all the way to Southdale Center and then go north.
Traveling between downtown and south of the river would also be more convenient as it would be a one-seat ride instead of requiring a transfer at Mall of America. Minnesota Valley Transit Authority’s Route 477, an express route between Minneapolis and Apple Valley, is one of their busiest routes and the Red Line would complement this by providing all-day service in both directions on the same segment. A person is more likely to take transit if they have backup options; for example if they have to stay late at the office and the last Route 477 bus has already left they can take the Red Line instead.
Southern Extension Potential
A southern extension could easily be implemented today assuming the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority has the buses and drivers to do it. However buses would be operating non-stop between Apple Valley Transit Station and Lakeville Cedar Park & Ride. The very low ridership of this extension may not justify the cost of operating this service further south. Even if stations are added in between they would produce very little extra riders.
Above: The area within a half mile of Lakeville Cedar Park & Ride as of last year. Much of the area is undeveloped, and where it is being developed is mostly low-density residential.
While the Red Line is underperforming, a northern extension would be a cost effective way to serve more people and destinations and boost ridership. Right now the area along the southern extension is developing, but mostly as low-density single-family homes. To make a southern extension more likely to succeed and be useful there needs to be mixed-use and higher density development. From what I’ve seen Lakeville has showed reluctance to develop more transit- and pedestrian-friendly areas, but this may change as younger generations want more options to get around than just the car. Until then we should put a Red Line southern extension on hold and focus our resources on a northern extension to Downtown Minneapolis.