A TransitLink bus waits by the rangers' offices at Afton State Park while two people return to their cars after paying for their permit. Photo: Henry Pan

How I Rode Public Transit To Afton State Park

A TransitLink bus waits by the rangers' offices at Afton State Park while two people return to their cars after paying for their permit. Photo: Henry Pan

A TransitLink bus waits by the rangers’ offices at Afton State Park. TransitLink provides dial-a-ride service to the general public in all seven Twin Cities counties. Photo: Henry Pan

In October, I took the bus out to Afton State Park, which is located on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border due east of the Twin Cities. 

But wait, you might think. That’s impossible. There’s no bus service out that way. The nearest Metro Transit route is the 294, which goes to Stillwater and only runs during rush hour

But I did. Before I ventured out to Afton State Park by transit on a temperate fall day last October, I had wanted to visit the park for years. Within a couple months of relocating to Minnesota, I began to miss vast, hilly spaces. Growing up and living in San Francisco, I could visit one of the city’s 43 hills, or even head to the Marin Headlands or Mount Tamalpais, or even the six-year-old bike path that hugs Devils’ Slide – by transit, mind you –  just to hike, take in the views of the city and the coastline, and…do nothing.

In the Twin Cities, I learned that spaces as vast as the Marin Headlands, let alone vast spaces with hills, are few and far between. I didn’t know that parks like Afton State Park existed until Jane Natoli, who used to live here but now lives in San Francisco, told me about it. 

I became fascinated. The only issue was that, up until I moved to Bemidji one winter, I never rode a bike on a rural road. Also, to this day, I have never gone on a ride longer than 26 miles. I also didn’t have a car and it’s a very long walk from the nearest Metro Transit bus stop. Thinking that there wasn’t any transit that went out that way, I thought I wouldn’t be able to visit Afton unless I knew someone with a car, or developed my ability to ride a bike without stopping for food every so often.

Then, I found out about TransitLink. Realizing that I could use TransitLink to venture to Afton State Park, I began to scheme. There was just one problem: it only ran on weekdays. Up until a year ago, I was almost always working 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. I also moved away for a bit. Now that I freelance and work part-time and on-call jobs, I have more time available on the weekdays. In late October, I finally gave it a try. It’s not as bad as I originally thought. But it’s not as easy, either. 

I began my journey from my home in the Lyndale neighborhood at 9:30am one Friday morning. I walked to the bus stop on Nicollet to catch the 18. As I got on, I noticed the bus is packed, as usual.

One stop into the ride, I noticed a woman who was struggling to get a cart out of the shelter so she could get on the bus. We wait for a bit, then  take off. The lady proceeds to scream at the bus for pulling away before she could get to it. As we pulled away, I realized that she had a stroller with a child inside. We eventually got Downtown and I transferred to the 94. Unfortunately, the mother, child, and stroller never made it on to my bus.

I arrive Downtown St. Paul at around 10:40am. While I was still on the bus, I saw the 70 arrive at Minnesota and 5th. Fearing that I would miss the bus, which would put me perilously close to missing the TransitLink – and getting a warning that could lead to me being banned from the system for a bit – I got off the bus and ran for it. It turns out the bus was early and was taking a brief break after completing a trip. The bus  departed 2 minutes later. I could have walked to get between buses. But nonetheless, I made it, and we were on our way, one step closer to getting to my scheduled TransitLink ride.

About 20 minutes later, we arrive at Sun Ray Transit Center with 15 minutes to spare. I opted for lunch, but saw nothing around besides a Culver’s. So I went there. The Culver’s, to put it aptly, had more activity than the area surrounding the Transit Center. 

While Sun Ray Transit Center is located in a relatively-sleepy corner of the east side of St. Paul, it is used by many commuters to begin and continue their journeys in the Twin Cities. Photo: Henry Pan

While Sun Ray Transit Center is located in a relatively-sleepy corner of the east side of St. Paul, it is used by many commuters to begin and continue their journeys in the Twin Cities. Photo: Henry Pan

After I got lunch, I returned to the transit center. Sun Ray Transit Center is small and located just outside of a mostly-desolate strip mall. It’s surrounded on the north and east side by empty parking lots. It is served by routes that cover various parts of St. Paul, as well as suburbs adjacent to the East Side: Maplewood, Oakdale, and White Bear Lake.

In June, Metro Transit, through a contractor, will begin operating daily service to Woodbury from Sun Ray for the first time. Eventually, the transit center will be served by the Gold Line half a block to the south.

While I was waiting for my TransitLink ride, I noticed more people queuing for routes that serve other parts of St. Paul, rather than the suburbs. A few people were waiting board the 63 that pulled up. I then saw some people who I recognized from the 70 that I was on, board the 74. It made me wonder if people riding those buses were trying to get from one part of the East Side to another. It makes me wonder what Sun Ray Transit Center’s role would be if there were more frequent transit service serving more parts of the East Side. 

After the 63 and 74 left, I and one other person were the only ones left waiting at the transit center. Was he also waiting for the TransitLink bus I was waiting for? After all, TransitLink is a shared-ride bus, and I was told by the reservationist to allow up to one hour to get to the park, since it may make stops along the way. 

Alas, it was just me. A small bus with the logo and the service’s phone number came up right at 11:28am, which was the time that I arranged with the reservationist. The driver opened the door and asked for my name. This is it, I thought to myself. I board the bus, tag my card, and take a seat.

TransitLink uses cutaways, or incomplete trucks that later have a bus-style body grafted onto the vehicle. Each TransitLink cutaway seats 8-12 passengers. Most of the seats are single seats, except for the first row. Photo: Henry Pan

TransitLink uses cutaways, or trucks or vans that later have a bus-style body grafted onto the vehicle. Each TransitLink cutaway seats 8-12 passengers, and can accomodate people using wheelchairs. On this cutaway, I noticed most of the seats are single seats, except for the first row. Photo: Henry Pan

TransitLink is the region’s dial-a-ride system. It’s actually celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. It was created to replace 17 community dial-a-ride systems in the Metro area. It serves all seven counties, just not within ¼ mile of where there is regular transit service in the winter, and ½ mile in the summer. Like Metro Transit, TransitLink is funded by the state and federal government, as well as from rider fares and the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax. As of press time, the Met Council does not have plans to commemorate its 10th anniversary. 

TransitLink is a service of the Met Council, but is operated by contractors who do the operations and maintenance. There are three companies that operate TransitLink in the Twin Cities. Midwest Paratransit operates most of the service. They also used to operate in Hennepin County until December 2019, when they requested to be released from that contract. First Transit ultimately took over operations for Hennepin County TransitLink. The remaining service area – Washington and Southeast Ramsey County – is operated by MV Transportation. 

For me, MV Transportation is a familiar sight. It was founded in San Francisco. While it is now currently headquartered in Texas, it continues to operate many routes for Bay Area transit agencies. I forgot MV existed until I made my reservation for the first time. MV first won the contract to operate Washington and Southeast Ramsey County TransitLink service five years ago after edging out Midwest Paratransit, who was the previous operator.

Not counting Cities Area Transit in Grand Forks, this is MV’s only operation that operates entirely in the State of Minnesota. They might not be around for much longer, as their contract expires on September 25, 2020. To line up successors, the Met Council recently released a request for proposals that is due in March. 

I ended up being the only person on the ride to Afton State Park. Despite that, TransitLink in Washington and Southeast Ramsey County is actually well utilized. According to Bonnie Kollodge, who is the Spokesperson for the Metropolitan Council, TransitLink in Washington County serves 32,718 annual riders (Scott and Carver County’s operation, on the other hand, had 93,688 annual riders). 

It took me 30 minutes to get to Afton State Park. We took Interstate 94 to the eastern edge of Woodbury, then two county roads. Office parks and suburban subdivisions eventually gave way to farmland, pumpkin patches, grain storage towers, and hills. Enamored, I didn’t make much conversation with the driver who drove me there. I spent most of my time taking photos of the bus and the scenery, and taking selfies. 

TransitLink will drop you off and pick you up by the rangers' building, which is located at the entrance to Afton State Park. Photo: Henry Pan

TransitLink will drop you off and pick you up by the rangers’ office building, which is located at the entrance to Afton State Park. Photo: Henry Pan

Afton State Park could have become another subdivision. But it didn’t. The land, which included the last undeveloped beach on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix River, went on the market in 1967. Acting quickly, Samuel H. Morgan, who was one of the founders of the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota, founded an entity to solicit and manage loans and donations in order to purchase the land.

At the same time, the State was looking to expand their open space holdings in the area, owing to the overcrowding experienced at nearby William O’Brien State Park. The Legislature managed to pass legislation to create the park in 1969, but not without enduring people who opposed the park because of the traffic it would create. As a result, the beach – and the campground near it – is accessible only by hiking. The land encompassing Afton State Park did not reach its full extent until 1996.

Afton State Park is a wonderful place to be in the fall, in part because of the changing leaves. Photo: Henry Pan

Afton State Park is a wonderful place to be, especially in the fall when the colors of the leaves change. Photo: Henry Pan

I arrived at Afton State Park shortly before noon. Finally, I thought to myself. This was the park that people have told me I should visit. I was in awe of how quiet and varied the terrain was. I had five hours to wander, and wanted to make the most of it. After venturing into the office, where the two rangers who greeted me were surprised I took the bus here, I ventured into the park. 

Most of the land surrounding Afton State Park was bluff prairie. Eventually, white colonists came along and started to use the land for agriculture, decimating the prairies. They also worked to eliminate wildfires – which are vital to the prairie’s survival – and as a result, native trees are gradually growing where the prairies once existed. The State is engaging in ongoing prairie restoration efforts at the park. Curious as to their efforts, I walked on a trail that loops around the restored prairie, which also has interpretive displays that explains the restoration process.

Entrance to the prairie restoration trail loop at Afton State Park. Photo: Henry Pan

Entrance to the prairie restoration trail loop at Afton State Park. Photo: Henry Pan

After walking the trail, I headed towards the St. Croix River. It is a 300-foot descent from the entrance to the river. The area around the park was not impacted by the late Wisconsin glaciation, and as a result, wind and water gradually molded the park into what it is today. The views overall – especially of the St. Croix – are vast and alluring, enhanced by the changing colors of the leaves both in the park and across the river.

Afton State Park is adjacent to the St. Croix River, which delineates the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Photo: Henry Pan

Afton State Park is adjacent to the St. Croix River, which delineates the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Photo: Henry Pan

The best part of all was hiking under a canopy of trees, especially with the changing colors. I became so mesmerized that I procrastinated leaving until the last possible moment.

Fall Foliage at Afton State Park

Fall Foliage at Afton State Park. Photo: Henry Pan

I could have stayed at the park longer. When I made my reservation for my return trip the operator I spoke to offered me two options: 5pm, and 5:35pm. I decided on a 5pm pickup because I wanted to be able to catch the last of the express buses to get home. However, the bus arrived to pick me up at 5:20pm.

It was the one bus that couldn’t be late. And technically it wasn’t. While a bus can wait for a passenger for three minutes to get ready before the operator considers the passenger a “no-show”, a TransitLink bus can show up 30 minutes after it’s scheduled to show up and still be considered on time.

Ms. Kollodge, spokesperson for the Met Council, attributes this to a variety of factors, as well as requirements outlined by the Federal Transit Administration. “Shared ride dial-a-ride systems must have a flexible arrival window to account for individual customers that aren’t ready when the vehicle arrives, needing to wait for dispatch to approve no-shows before continuing on the route, more challenging operating environments on residential streets, and trying to locate proper addresses.”

I wasn’t able to get any data of how often buses arrived to pick up a passenger at the precise reservation time, but Ms. Kollodge told me that in 2019, buses picked up passengers within the 30 minute window 99% of the time. 

While I waited for my bus to show up, I panicked because I thought the bus came early and I missed it. That actually happened to me once in Bemidji and I ended up having to walk an hour home in below zero weather. I tried to check on my reservation. Unfortunately, MV’s offices were closed, and while I could have checked my ride after hours using an automated system, I didn’t realize I needed a password until the system prompted me for one.

When the bus arrived, the driver told me he wanted to wait for a bit because he was planning on picking someone else up in Cottage Grove. Now I understand why I was offered a 5:35pm slot, and after seeing how beautiful the park was, I should have gone for it. 

I never went to Cottage Grove before, so I decided to go along with the driver. We waited on the bus at the park entrance for 20 minutes. I spent that time talking to the driver, as well as taking some last photographs of the park and of the bus. 5:45pm came, and we made our way to Cottage Grove. 

The rolling farmland and open space I became accustomed to gave way to office parks, wide roads, and roundabouts. We ended up at a warehouse on the southern end of Cottage Grove, where we were supposed to pick up our 6pm reservation.

But our 6pm reservation was nowhere to be found. 

It’s much easier to drive to get around the Twin Cities because of the amount of arterials and freeways. Taking transit, while great for the environment, takes much longer than driving. The 30-minute arrival window certainly doesn’t make TransitLink very reliable if you’re trying to get somewhere in a rush. It’s possible that our 6pm reservation decided to get a ride with a coworker so they could get home faster. 

One of the issues that contributes to the service’s reliability is an ongoing operator shortage. Ms. Kollodge told me that the Washington County operation has 13 drivers and are short four drivers. When I rode TransitLink, Ms. Kollodge told me that six drivers weren’t working that day. That means there were only seven drivers working to get passengers around. “It’s very difficult to attract and retain quality and qualified drivers, particularly in times of low unemployment”, says Ms. Kollodge. 

My driver did not want to give up on this passenger. We drove between entrances – twice – to make sure we could pick them up. One thing that didn’t help, my driver told me, was how difficult it was to understand where to pick the passenger up with scant details from dispatch. After 15 minutes of waiting and driving between entrances, we decided to give up and head to Sun Ray. The driver felt very bad and lamented about getting me to Sun Ray if he had known the rider would have been a no-show. But we didn’t know that they were going to be a no-show in the first place. 

We got to Sun Ray at around 6:40pm. I got off, and found that the 63 was just a couple minutes away. Great! I think to myself. I think I can make the last 94 and that will get me home at a reasonable time. I get on the 63.

One stop later, a horde of high school students get on the bus, along with their chaperone. Based on the conversation I heard, they appeared to be going to a show Downtown. It was the first time in almost a year that I rode a bus that was standing-room only. Along the way, the chaperone got the students set up on Uber. “I’m responsible for you”, she said. Some students didn’t want to be set up on Uber; in fact, one of the students thought the bus was safer. 

We eventually arrived at Downtown St. Paul. I missed the 94 by about 5 minutes. After I got off the bus, I decided the next best thing was the one hour ride on the 21, in order to complete my journey with my transfer. Ultimately, it took three hours to get home. 

Yes, it is possible to take transit to Afton. Yes, it was a long journey. I spent 5 hours at the park, and 5 hours in transit. But it was worth it for me because I got to hike up the hills, take in the views of the St. Croix, and not have to drive. 

Still, not everyone knows that such a thing is possible until after I told them. Even if people knew about this, it’s not an option for everyone. I’m only able to do this because I’m currently not working a conventional 9 to 5 job. I also understand that not everyone is interested in spending 5 hours going back and forth to Afton for a day, when they could drive there in one hour. 

King County seems to have found a solution to encourage people to take transit to their parks. Two years ago, in an effort to address overflowing parking lots and illegal parking at their popular trailheads, King County Metro and the King County Parks department began operating a service that connected county parks and trails to transit centers in the County. It’s been a success; in fact, ridership on those routes increased 75% this past year.

Metro Transit and the Met Council could follow in King County’s footsteps, and launch a similar service for those interested in visiting Afton State Park without a car. But until then, biking, carpooling, or TransitLink are your best options yet.

If You Go

Step 1: Figure Out A Good Time To Go

You may need to take a day off work to do this. TransitLink only operates on weekdays, and only during the day (roughly 6am to 6pm). Only Hennepin County has TransitLink service on Saturdays, and only in communities on the eastern end of Lake Minnetonka. It does not operate on the 4th Thursday of November, Christmas, or New Years’ Day. It does, however, operate on Memorial Day, 4th of July (observed), Labor Day, and the day after the 4th Thursday of November.

Step 2: Let Them Know A Week Ahead Of Time

Give them a call. Now that you know what day you want to go, you need to find out if TransitLink can accommodate you. Give them a call first before you do any further trip planning. Their phone number is (651) 602-5465. Press options 1, then 7, then 1 to connect with the reservationist who schedules trips in Washington County.

When should I call? Call at least a day, but no more than a week, before when you plan to go. Your best bet is to call a week ahead of time, because they do run out of reservations. They will not accept walk-ups, and the Met Council strongly discourages contractors from accepting same-day requests for rides (but they won’t stop them from taking such requests). (After my trip to Afton, I wanted to visit the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area in early January. But because I called a day before my journey, I couldn’t secure a reservation because all of their reservations were taken.)

What information do they need to know? When you call, you will need to give them your starting and ending location, whether or not you need a return ride, as well as what times you want to depart and return. You will most likely be riding a Metro Transit bus to a transit center, since TransitLink won’t operate in areas with regular transit service. If this is the case, your starting point will most likely be Sun Ray Transit Center (for rush hour, you could also start at Woodbury Theater or Guardian Angels Park & Ride in Oakdale). For Afton State Park (or other landmarks that aren’t transit centers), you must give them the exact address (because the drivers use an address-based GPS which helps them get between stops). The exact address for Afton State Park is 6959 S Peller Ave. in Denmark Township.

If you have never ridden TransitLink before, you will need to provide your name and physical address to establish your account. This is how TransitLink will be able to communicate with you. Once you establish your TransitLink account, get your Client Identification Number from – and set up a password with – your reservationist, so you can check on your ride after hours.

You may not necessarily get a ride at the time you want. The bus may only serve a place once every two hours. The time you get from the reservationist is the time that you should be at the bus stop by.

What If I’m Going In A Group? Ms. Kollodge tells me that people traveling in groups of five or more from and to the exact same address are entitled to a group discount. The group discount consists of a free return ride. To redeem the free return ride, make a reservation with a reservationist, and you will be directed to provide details of your group – including the names of everyone on your party, as well as whether or not anyone in the group uses a mobility device – to the manager of the operation.

Step 3: I’ve Booked It, Now What Should I Expect?

Congrats! You’re going to go on a car-free trip to Afton State Park. Here are some things to keep in mind.

How Much Do I Need To Pay? Fares for TransitLink are different from transit providers who provide regular transit service. If you’re traveling 15 miles or less, it’s $3.50 outside of rush hour, and $4.50 during rush hour. If you’re traveling beyond 15 miles, you have to pay an extra 75¢. If you’re traveling from Sun Ray Transit Center to Afton State Park, you will pay $4.25 because Afton State Park is greater than 15 miles from Sun Ray.

TransitLink accepts the Go-To card. Every fare you pay comes with a transfer that’s good on all regional transit services. If you used a Go-To card to take Metro Transit to TransitLink, the Go-To readers on the TransitLink buses will automatically calculate any remaining fare you have to pay if you still have a valid transfer.

When Should I Get To TransitLink? Get to TransitLink on time, based on what the reservationist told you. If the reservationist schedules your ride to leave from Sun Ray at 11:28am, for example, get to Sun Ray before then. If you’re not at the bus stop by three minutes after the bus arrives, you could be written off as a no-show. If you have too many no-shows, you could be banned from using any TransitLink service for at least 30 days. Use Google Maps, the Transit app, Metro Transit’s Trip Planner, or call or text Metro Transit’s Transit Information Center to plan a trip to get to TransitLink.

Will The Bus Arrive On Time? Yes. Expect that the bus can be up to 30 minutes late and still be considered “on-time”, due to Federal regulations.

How Long Will It Take Me? Once you get on, allow up to an hour to get to the park. The bus may deviate to pick up other passengers as well; after all, it is public transit.

Once I Arrive At Afton, Where Will I Get Off And Get On The Bus? The buses aren’t allowed to go inside the park. The bus will drop you off and pick you up at the office adjacent to the entrance of the park. From the entrance, it’s a 2-mile hike to the visitor center, and – if you’re camping – the campground.

How Big Are The Buses? The buses are small. They seat 8-12 people. There is room for bikes, but only in the back, and only when there are no wheelchairs or mobility devices onboard. Some TransitLink buses may also be equipped with bike racks.

What Can I Bring Onboard? Each passenger is allowed to bring up to four grocery-sized bags. However, I noticed some confusion over whether or not camping equipment is allowed. MV Transportation, the operator for Washington County TransitLink, prohibits camping equipment, including camping stoves, tents, hiking sticks, and skis. However, Bonnie Kollodge, spokesperson for the Met Council, says that “riders are not allowed to bring items on the bus that will interfere with the comfort or safety of other passengers or that will result in excessive boarding/alighting time.” That being said, Kollodge suggests you might be able to bring them onboard so long as you can “carry all of the items independent of assistance” and be mindful of the “space it takes in the vehicle”. Also, camping stoves might be allowed so long as the fuel source “doesn’t create a safety threat.” Use your judgment.

What If I Want To Check On A Ride Or Cancel? Know that the reservation line closes early, at 3:30pm. If you call when the reservation line is open, the reservationist can check on the status of, or cancel a ride for you. If you want to check on a ride after hours, call the TransitLink line and press 2. Be sure to have your Client Identification Number and password handy when you do so. If you don’t have this information, you won’t be able to check on your ride status. If you need to cancel after hours, leave a message with the reservationist.

Can I Go To Stillwater On The Same Day Since It’s Nearby? Because of how the contractor sets up the service area in Washington County, you can’t go to Stillwater, let alone anywhere north of I-94 on the same day, without returning to St. Paul. I tried to reserve a ride to get between Afton and Stillwater, only to be told that I needed to take TransitLink to Sun Ray, take Metro Transit to Maplewood Mall, and transfer to another TransitLink bus to take me to Stillwater. If you want to go to Stillwater on a day when you also go to Afton State Park, don’t plan on it.

Can I Go To Hastings On The Same Day Since It’s Nearby? While you can’t go to Stillwater on the same day as your trip to Afton, you can go to Hastings. TransitLink in Washington County operates a 3-mile buffer into Dakota County. You could take TransitLink to Afton for a day of hiking, then TransitLink to Hastings, then TransitLink back to the cities.

Can I Go into Wisconsin on TransitLink? No.

Can I Go Anywhere Else On TransitLink? Yes! TransitLink serves all 7 Twin Cities counties. You could go to White Bear Lake, New Prague, or Excelsior, or the Minnesota Valley State  Recreation Area, or Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store. The possibilities are endless. Visit the TransitLink website for details.

I’m Still Nervous. Won’t You Come With Me? If you’re still nervous about going somewhere on TransitLink, don’t fear! Later this year, the local NUMTOT chapter will organize trips using TransitLink out to the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area, Afton State Park, and William O’Brien State Park. Stay tuned and join the group for details.

Where Can I Get More Information? You can get more information about how to use TransitLink by clicking here.

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 BlueSky: hpan3 dot bsky dot social See bylines after March 2020 in Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Racket, Minnesota Reformer, Next City, The Guardian, Daily Yonder and MinnPost.

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