Cline Bus

A Look at Future Rapid Bus Lines

A wave of faster limited stop transit services will arrive in the next few years. The Orange Line BRT (I-35W Minneapolis-Burnsville, replacing Route 535) is fully funded and construction is underway. The B Line (overlaid on Route 21 Selby-Lake), D Line (overlaid on Route 5 Chicago-Fremont), E Line (overlaid on Route 6 Southdale-Hennepin-4th Street SE), and the Gold Line (St. Paul-Woodbury) are all well into the design stage.

The arterial BRTs are targeted at the heaviest local bus routes which are usually slow, with frequent stops. Metro Transit’s strategy for speeding up service and increasing ridership is to overlay a limited stop BRT while retaining the local route at a reduced service level. Most of the riders are concentrated at the stops with significant commercial or institutional development, so that is where the BRT will stop. The local bus route will continue to serve all the stops including those between the BRT stations. The goal is to attract more riders, while not driving away the existing riders. So far that formula has worked for the A Line and the C Line.

Speed is increased by stopping every half mile or so and eliminating on-bus fare collection. Traffic signal priority also helps, although it isn’t usually implemented at cross streets with high traffic volumes. There may be an occasional bus-only lane, but that will remain uncommon.

Here’s my take on the lines currently under development.

Orange Line

Orange Line

The Orange Line will travel I-35W from downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville, making stops about every two miles. It will replace Route 535 from downtown to Bloomington, and may replace Minnesota Valley Transit Route 465 which connects Burnsville and Bloomington to the U of M, and during half of the day, to downtown.

I-35W is a strange transit corridor. It’s the heaviest rush hour express bus corridor in the metro area, with about 10,000 daily passengers.

The off-peak is a different story altogether. Route 465 runs every 30-minutes, Route 535 every 15 minutes to Richfield and every 30 minutes to Bloomington. That’s pretty good service, but the two routes combine for only about 2000 daily rides.

Attracting all-day ridership is a challenge because I-35W mostly avoids major traffic generators. The south Minneapolis and Richfield sections (46th St and 66th St, respectively) are almost 100 percent residential, and pretty low density at that. Bus connections will be made at Lake Street, 46th Street and 66th Street, but there’s little walk-up potential at those stops and no park-ride spaces.

Multi-stop bus services on freeways are always a challenge. Speeds are high on the freeway, especially is there is a center bus lane or HOV lane, which there is on I-35W. Stopping requires either an on-line station or exiting the freeway, which means vacating the center lane. 46th Street has a center online station, as will Lake Street. 66th Street requires exiting, but it’s a diamond interchange and re-entry happens quickly.

The biggest interruption of freeway speed happens between 76th and 82nd Streets. Both the 535 and the Orange Line have to exit and follow local streets for a mile or more. With no way across I-494, the 535 has to jog a half mile west to Penn Avenue, a time-consuming  inconvenience to through riders from Bloomington, but at least it serves bus connections, the Best Buy campus, a major park-ride behind Best Buy, some apartment complexes and the Southtown retail area. The Orange Line will serve the same area faster via a new Knox Avenue shortcut under I-494.

Although it’s not in the plan, there should be an online station at 98th Street. There’s a transit center, park-ride lot and a healthy retail concentration. Not much residential. Getting on and off the freeway is an awkward, lengthy process in the southbound direction, not so bad northbound.

One of the challenges at 98th is to provide good connections to Normandale College. Route 535 currently ends there, providing a one-seat ride. Adding a transfer is usually a recipe for killing ridership, so that’s a concern.

At Burnsville the puzzling decision was made not to terminate at the big Burnsville Transit Center, but across Highway 13 amid retail and residential. I think it should do both, even though that involves extra messing around. Rush hour park-riders need a midday return route, unless MVTA keeps running the 465. That will be more service than the market will support, so I expect the Burnsville terminus to change.

In summary, all-day transit on I-35W always seems like the obvious thing to do, but the reality is that it’s still a modest transit market.

Gold Line

Gold Line

The St. Paul side of the metro area is always complaining that Minneapolis gets all the new transit services. They’re right, because Minneapolis is a much better transit market. Ever since the county rail authorities decided to no longer pool their resources, the east metro counties can spend the money on themselves and that has given rise to projects with popular appeal and dubious ridership potential. I refer to the Rush Line (White Bear Lake-St. Paul) and the Gold Line (Woodbury-St. Paul).

The Gold Line will mostly follow the north side of I-94, and much of that distance will be on a new bus-only roadway. That will make it the most expensive BRT to date.

Ridership will be modest at best. Because of the freeway on its south flank, walkup from that direction will be nil. There is some residential and commercial density on the north side of I-94, and that offers the greatest ridership potential.

Most BRT’s are being placed where conventional bus service has demonstrated there is ridership. That is true of the Gold Line only within St. Paul. The Maplewood, Landfall and west Oakdale segments have only hourly suburban crosstown Route 219 at present with a handful of daily boardings, although the Landfall trailer park holds untapped ridership potential. The east Oakdale and Woodbury segments have never had off-peak fixed route service. They are also the very prototype of a sprawl landscape. The Gold Line will finally provide a midday return trip for Route 353 and 355 park-ride express riders, but it’s hard to imagine much walk-up business.

Although it can be fixed, to date the Gold Line plan completely ignores the existing Sunray Transit Center, which it misses by a city block. Currently served by Routes 63, 70, 74, 80 and 219, it’s the timed transfer hub of the east side and sees 800 boardings per day. In order to connect conveniently with the Gold Line, the transit center should be moved a block to the south, but that’s not currently in the plans.

B Line (Selby-Lake)

B Line Map809

The B Line would be overlaid on Route 21, which would continue to provide less frequent local service. The 21 has always had two distinct halves, within Minneapolis and within St. Paul. Because of the difference in demand, the Minneapolis side has twice the frequency of the St. Paul side, and that must be taken into account when designing the BRT.

Anyone who’s ever ridden the Route 21 Selby-Lake across Lake Street knows that it’s very well patronized and also very slow. It stops almost every block and hits lots of red lights because there are a lot of red lights to hit. Traffic congestion is bad, especially during rush hours, and that contributes to both slower buses and bus bunching.

Metro Transit runs a limited stop rush hour service, Route 53 on Lake Street. Designed primarily for commuters to downtown St. Paul, it also carries local passengers and stops only at transfer points along Lake Street. From Hiawatha to Uptown Station it’s only 4 minutes faster than the 21. Even with off-board fare collection and traffic signal priority, plus probably skipping the jog to the Chicago-Lake Transit Center, I doubt that travel time savings will improve much because of heavy traffic.

Because the BRT will be extended around the north shore of Bde Maka Ska to connect with the Green Line, it will bypass the Uptown Station. I suspect Route 21 will continue to terminate at Uptown.

This is the one BRT corridor where there’s a better (make that much better) alternative, a rail line in the Midtown Greenway. I sat on the Citizens Advisory Committee when rail was studied. The trip from Hennepin to Hiawatha by rail would take 10 minutes, compared to 29 by Route 21 and maybe 20 by BRT. Because of its faster speed, the rail line would require fewer vehicles to run the same service. It would also stimulate redevelopment along the corridor, something no bus service is able to do. In the Greenway there is no traffic congestion to cause delays and the ride would be much more comfortable without the constant changes start and stop of navigating traffic. As the Green Line has shown, rail will attract choice riders who will never set foot on a Lake Street bus. There’s also the byproduct of increased security for Greenway cyclists and pedestrians because a train would pass every 5 minutes, increased lighting, and folks waiting at stations will provide more “eyes on the street”.

My personal feeling is the BRT should be treated as a temporary stop-gap until rail can be built.

It is unclear if the B Line will be extended to downtown St. Paul. If it does, it will bypass the Route 21 jog up to University Avenue. The jog currently serves some 1000 daily riders (15% of the 21’s total). It provides access to a major retail concentration and makes possible transfers to and from the Green Line. However, the Metro Transit table below shows there are even more through riders for whom the jog is an irritation. Keeping the Midway jog on Route 21 while the B Line bypasses it would make everyone happy.

Rt 21 Od810

This chart shows where Route 21 riders start and end their trips.

If lack of funds prevents the extension to downtown St. Paul, the B Line could terminate at Snelling and University and transfer its downtown passengers to the Green Line.

D Line Chicago-Fremont

00 05 87972 19 D Line Map 1
Route 5 is the busiest bus line in the Twin Cities and a good candidate for BRT. It’s also quite long, stretching from Brooklyn Center to the Mall of America, and fewer stops over a longer distance will yield some real travel time savings.

The D Line BRT will stretch from MOA to Brooklyn Center Transit Center. The unanswered question is where the remaining (but less frequent) Route 5 local service will start and end. There’s a good case to be made for ending it at 56th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. In north Minneapolis it’s probable that Route 5 may not reach north of 44th Avenue. Brooklyn Center Transit Center doesn’t have room for both the D and C Lines plus their local services (Routes 5 and 19). There’s an argument to be made for combining Routes 5 and 19 into a single big loop within north Minneapolis via Penn, 44th Avenue and Fremont. It would save money and double as a circulator within the North Side.

E Line Dinkytown-Hennepin Avenue-Southdale

E Line Map808

The challenge with overlaying a BRT on top of Route 6 is that it divides into two branches from Bde Maka Ska to Southdale. Half the buses take Xerxes Avenue and half take France Avenue. The E Line is proposed to cover some of each, with the idea of hitting all the biggest traffic generators– the business districts at 43rd & Upton, 44th & France and 50th & France, Southwest High School plus Fairview Southdale Hospital and its attendant medical buildings. As such it’s not the fastest route from Southdale to downtown. It takes a few more minutes via France compared to Xerxes.

As for how much local service will remain once the E Line opens in about 2023, it looks like the Route 6E Xerxes will survive. That’s downtown to Southdale via Xerxes and beyond to Minnesota Drive, just north of I-494. Less obvious is whether there will be a France Avenue local. Is there is, it will probably stay on France to Excelsior Boulevard and terminate at the Green Line West Lake Station. Even with a transfer to LRT,  the trip to downtown would be about 10 minutes faster than it is today. It would also open up connections to the western suburbs that either don’t exist or are currently roundabout via Uptown Station. It’s hard to imagine such a route extending farther south than 50th and France, although it might take over the west end of Route 46 that extends west on 50th beyond Highway 100.

Service to southeast Minneapolis, specifically Dinkytown, is still somewhat unclear. Half of the riders between downtown and Dinkytown stay within southeast. Route 6 currently ends at 27th & University SE. Some have proposed extending it to the Westgate Green Line station, just across the St. Paul city limits. There it would connect end to end with Route 63 Grand Avenue and Route 30 from Lauderdale. Prospect Park residents have long requested a one-seat to Dinkytown. It has been tried before and failed for lack of ridership, but recent apartment development near the Prospect Park Station and Westgate Station may spell success this time.


Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.