A Comprehensive Transit Overhaul for the Twin Cities: Part II

This is the second of a three-part series detailing the rapid transit and regional rail requirements for the Twin Cities to become a transit-oriented, climate-neutral metropolitan region. Last week covered rail rapid transit. Today’s entry focuses on bus rapid transit, while next week the final article will look at regional rail.

The previous rapid transit and regional rail proposals were updated to reflect the lessons mentioned last week. In addition to the updated maps shown below, detailed maps of the rapid transit and regional rail systems can be seen here and here, respectively. Detailed information on each bus rapid transit route is covered in the next sections.

Tcrt System Map Winter 2020

Updated map of existing and proposed BRT and light rail routes in the Twin Cities region. | Image: Eric Ecklund

Arterial Brt System Map Winter 2020

Updated map of existing and proposed arterial BRT (aBRT) routes in the Twin Cities region. | Image: Eric Ecklund

Bus Rapid Transit Expansion in the Twin Cities

The Orange Line between Burnsville and Minneapolis is under construction and expected to open in late 2021. The Gold Line between St. Paul and Woodbury is expected to open in 2024 if full funding can be secured, and the Rush Line between St. Paul and White Bear Lake is expected to open in 2026 if full funding can be secured. Numerous other routes have been proposed for BRT service with some of these studied in the Metropolitan Council’s 2014 Highway Transitway Corridor Study. However, all of them are unlikely to be successful BRT service for several reasons; catering mostly to park & riders, infrequent service at off-peak times, poorly chosen station locations that make access difficult, and little to no local transit connections. The Red Rock Corridor between St. Paul and Hastings is also proposed for BRT service, but it is unlikely to have the demand for high frequency service all-day in both directions. Regional rail should be pursued for the Red Rock Corridor instead (more on that later).

A few of the corridors in the Metropolitan Council’s study still have potential for BRT service, but have to be implemented correctly based off the lessons on rapid transit previously mentioned. Other corridors should also be looked at for BRT service as long as they have the density and travel demand to support it, not because it would be cheap and easy to implement on an existing highway.

Red Line

While the existing Red Line is a glorified suburban shuttle bus, it should be improved so it’s a legitimate BRT service. A northern extension of the Red Line from Mall of America to Minneapolis should be prioritized before a southern extension from Apple Valley to Lakeville (more on that here). Due to the low density and auto-oriented development along Cedar Avenue south of Apple Valley, it may be best to keep the Red Line as far south as Apple Valley and improve accessibility to the Red Line there and in Eagan.

North of Mall of America the Red Line would serve eastern Richfield via Highway 77 and 66th Street; this would allow connections to the planned D Line on Portland Avenue and Route 515 that operates along 66th Street to Southdale Center. Then on I-35W the Red Line would utilize existing online stations at 46th Street and Lake Street that would be shared with the Orange Line. In Downtown Minneapolis the Red Line would utilize the Marq2 Corridor, which are dedicated bus lanes on Marquette and 2nd Avenues.

Orange Line 

The Orange Line will operate between “Heart of the City” in Burnsville and Downtown Minneapolis with most of the route on I-35W. The only major improvement needed to the initial route is an online station at South Bloomington Transit Center (I-35W & 98th Street) to reduce travel time and eliminate several turns that southbound buses will have to make with the current routing. One minor improvement that should be implemented is traffic signal preemption at certain intersections.

A southern extension of the Orange Line is being studied, and as of now it appears planners are leaning towards one or two station stops in the Burnsville Center area. This extension will be built once the Burnsville Center area is redeveloped, which is at least a few years away. While the City of Lakeville hopes to gain direct service from the Orange Line, they’ll need to put in serious effort to have transit-oriented development so the Orange Line is serving more than just a giant park & ride ramp. However, just as with the Red Line, extending service to Lakeville may be too far and not have enough riders to justify the extension. Lakeville should instead focus on regional rail service on the Dan Patch Line and local bus service that could connect with the Orange Line at Burnsville Center. The Orange Line Connector, a proposed local bus service between Heart of the City and Burnsville Center operating on Nicollet Avenue, could be extended south from Burnsville Center to Lakeville.

Highway 36 Corridor (Red Line Extension)

The Red Line Extension would be similar to the Metropolitan Council’s proposed BRT service on Highway 36, but would have a few more stations and an eastern terminus at Maplewood Mall instead of North St. Paul. There would also be a few segments, notably the Quarry Center and Rosedale Mall, where buses are operating off the highway in order to improve accessibility to the service. However, dedicated roadways should be built on certain segments to improve travel time and reduce the number of turns buses have to make.

I-35W North Corridor (Orange Line Extension)

Although labeled the I-35W North Corridor, this northern extension of the Orange Line between Minneapolis and Arden Hills would actually operate on I-35W for a short length while the rest of the route would have buses operating on roads just west of I-35W in order to better serve residential and commercial areas. Optimally, around half of the route would have dedicated bus lanes and the majority of signaled intersections would have signal preemption to reduce travel time.

Originally, the northern terminus was at the 95th Avenue Park & Ride in Blaine, but it was shortened due to the long route length and the lack of development near that park & ride facility. Instead, the northern terminus would be somewhere in the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant area, which will be redeveloped.

Gold Line

Overall, the Gold Line should be a good transit upgrade for the east metro, though there should be less catering to park & riders. Under the current proposal Woodbury will have two park & ride stations right next to each other, neither of which would directly serve Woodbury Village. This new proposal keeps the park & ride station at Woodbury Theatre but reroutes the Gold Line to Woodbury Village instead of the other park & ride station next to I-494. Optimally, the Gold Line would also serve the area around Tamarack Village in Woodbury, but that would require either a wonky routing or a branch of the Gold Line, both of which aren’t good options. Instead there should be local bus service between the Tamarack Village area and one of the Gold Line stations.

To the west of Downtown St. Paul, the Gold Line would be a good replacement for Metro Transit’s Route 94, which is the express bus service operating between the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis. With dedicated bus lanes or MnPass lanes on I-94, a western extension of the Gold Line to Downtown Minneapolis would provide more frequent and reliable service than Route 94. This would also allow a one-seat ride between the east metro and Minneapolis in addition to the Midway area, the University of Minnesota East Bank, and the Seward neighborhood. Although there may be concerns about this being redundant with the Green Line, around 65% of current Green Line riders are boarding at stations outside of both downtowns (based on Fall 2019 ridership data).

Rush Line (Purple Line)

The Rush Line (referred to here as the Purple Line) will serve Downtown St. Paul, Maplewood Mall, and Downtown White Bear Lake among other destinations. A somewhat wonky routing was chosen out of Downtown St. Paul. Positively, however, the Downtown White Bear Lake station has been redesigned to omit a park & ride; this is a good move, as the station should be catered for walk-up riders and those who work in or are visiting Downtown White Bear Lake. If it is deemed necessary to supply a park & ride at the outer terminus of the Purple line, a station one mile north on Highway 61 would be a good location, as it keeps the park & ride traffic out of the downtown district, has room for a larger surface lot, would cater to White Bear Lake residents and people coming from the north (Hugo, Forest Lake, etc.), and could connect with a regional rail service to Minneapolis.

I-35E South Corridor (Purple Line Extension)

This is another corridor studied by the Metropolitan Council that showed promise as a BRT service. However, this southern extension of the Purple Line would be quite different from their proposal: it would have a much shorter route length with a terminus at Cedar Grove in Eagan instead of Lakeville, and several more stations with most off the highway. The main intention of the Purple Line Extension is serving job clusters in Eagan from the northeast, but an extension further southwest is possible, likely going as far as the Burnsville Center area.

I-94 North Corridor (Lime Line)

For BRT service on I-94 North (referred to here as the Lime Line), balancing accessibility to North Minneapolis while being mobile enough to be a feasible option between Minneapolis and Maple Grove is a difficult task. While the Lime Line would only have two stations in North Minneapolis, this would be in addition to several other major bus improvements.

Under their 2014 Highway Transitway Corridor Study, the Metropolitan Council proposal has buses operating in the middle of I-94, but the Lime Line would instead have buses operating in dedicated lanes on the west side of the freeway through North Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center to improve service reliability, decrease travel time, and improve accessibility to stations. Another major difference from the Metropolitan Council’s proposal is instead of buses continuing west on I-694 to Maple Grove, the Lime Line would go through Brooklyn Park on Brooklyn Boulevard and Elm Creek Boulevard into Maple Grove. Along those segments, buses should have dedicated shoulder lanes and signal preemption at certain intersections to reduce travel time and increase reliability.

Recently the City of Minneapolis endorsed the inclusion of BRT with major upgrades to I-94 North. As of now there are no details for an official BRT proposal including alignment, stations, etc.

I-394 Corridor (Silver Line)

Although there are many jobs and residences along the I-394 Corridor, they aren’t configured to make it easy to serve with rapid transit. Buses operating in the median of the freeway would make the trip faster and more comfortable, but that would decrease the station catchment areas. Buses operating on dedicated and/or general roads makes travel time longer and requires several turns, but stations would be closer to most employers and residences. For BRT on the I-394 Corridor (referred to here as the Silver Line), the recommendation is a combination of operating on the freeway with online stations and utilizing general and dedicated roads with stations off the freeway.

Just as with the Pink Line Extension, online stations would have greatly improved pedestrian access to destinations to make it easier and safer walking to/from these stations. Stations should also have improved local transit connections, notably Ridgedale Center Station where a local bus service could improve access between the Silver Line and destinations around the Ridgedale Center area.

University Avenue Corridor (Silver Line Extension)

In addition to the Lapis Line, an extension of the Silver Line between Minneapolis and Fridley via University Avenue would bring a much-needed upgrade in transit service for Northeast Minneapolis. Optimally most of the route would have dedicated bus lanes and most intersections would have signal preemption.

France/Midtown Corridor (Bronze Line)

While light rail along the Midtown Greenway is the locally preferred alternative, simply having it operate between West Lake Station and Lake Street/Midtown Station (a distance of only 4 miles) would make it less usable than if it continued beyond those two stations. Several ideas have been brought up on where to extend light rail on the Midtown Greenway, but there are a couple major design issues. The Green Line Extension wasn’t designed with a future junction in mind due to the tunnel going under Kenilworth, so there would need to be a separate platform for Midtown Greenway trains at West Lake Station. As part of the original Blue Line construction, a future junction could be built just north of Lake Street/Midtown Station, but this would only allow Midtown Greenway trains to either terminate at that station or continue south on the Blue Line. With these major design issues, the locally preferred alternative should be reevaluated.

A busway on the Midtown Greenway is recommended instead of light rail due to the easier construction and routing of buses for this proposed service (referred to here as the Bronze Line) between Southdale Center and the University of Minnesota. The Bronze Line would also be able to utilize existing aBRT stations on France Avenue that will be built for the future E Line, and the E Line would be rerouted to Xerxes Avenue. Optimally, most of the segment along France Avenue would have dedicated lanes and there would be signal preemption at certain intersections. However, France Avenue is narrow through Edina, so having dedicated lanes may be difficult and would require removing on-street parking.

In addition to electric buses, the busway along the Midtown Greenway can be partially turfed to make it more aesthetically pleasing. 80-foot double-articulated buses could be used so the Bronze Line has similar capacity to a streetcar service, but this depends on what the existing road infrastructure will allow for turning radius and what modifications would be needed to allow these types of buses.

Cambridge Guided Busway

Cambridge Guided Busway in England. Buses operate on the concrete tracks. | Photo: Ed Webster/Wikipedia


Double Artic Bus Gothenburg

An 80-foot double-articulated bus in Gothenburg, Sweden. Assuming these would be allowed in the United States, they could be used on the Bronze Line and certain aBRT routes. | Photo: Eric Ecklund


Arterial Bus Rapid Transit Expansion in the Twin Cities 

After the B Line, D Line, and E Line, the next arterial BRT (aBRT) routes have not been determined yet. The aBRT network will be focused on the urban core, but routes will branch out into inner ring suburbs and a few routes may serve outer ring suburbs if the travel demand is there. Corridors most likely to receive aBRT service have strong existing ridership, usage patterns that allow for limited-stop service while the majority of existing riders are still within walking distance of stations, a simplified route structure, and the majority of land use being transit-oriented.

In addition to the proposals outlined below, the C and D Lines would have short northern extensions from Brooklyn Center Transit Center to connect with the Lime Line.

A Line Extension (Rosedale Mall-Arden Hills)

A northern extension of the A Line is officially proposed between Rosedale Mall and Arden Hills. This will most likely happen after the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant area is redeveloped. In addition to an extension of the A Line, a dedicated roadway should be built connecting Snelling Avenue south of Highway 36 to the transit center at Rosedale Mall, as this would eliminate several turns and reduce travel time for the A Line. The dedicated roadway could also be used by the Red Line Extension.

B Line Extension (West Lake Station-Blake Road Station)

A western extension of the B Line would replace most of the existing Route 17, which serves several areas with high potential ridership in St. Louis Park and eastern Hopkins, including Knollwood Mall. This would also provide convenient connecting service from two Green Line Extension stations.

C Line Extension (Downtown Minneapolis-66th Street)

While the C Line Extension could operate on either Bloomington Avenue or Cedar Avenue between Downtown Minneapolis and 46th Street in South Minneapolis, Cedar Avenue was chosen for the entirety of the route due to the simple north-south routing structure. However, further study of ridership trends and community feedback would be needed to determine the best alignment. Ultimately, the C Line Extension would go as far south as 66th Street in Richfield.

F Line (South St. Paul-Little Canada)

Robert Street and Rice Street have both been studied for aBRT service, and combining the two into the Robert-Rice Street Corridor makes it a very good candidate for aBRT service. Other modes of transit including streetcar have been evaluated for Robert Street, but aBRT is preferred as it would be easy to implement and can easily be combined with another corridor (in this case Rice Street). BRT all the way to Rosemount via Robert Street and Highway 3 has been brought up in the past, but it’s not known if this has ever been officially studied. Any kind of transit on Robert Street going further south from South St. Paul would likely not perform well due to the very low population and job density.

G Line (U of M St. Paul Campus-Sun Ray Shopping Center)

The University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus has excellent bus service to/from the west with the Campus Connector bus shuttle operating at a high frequency when school is in session, but from any other direction bus service is light; Route 87 operates north-south with a frequency of every 20 minutes at most, and Route 3 operates at high frequency when school is in session but doesn’t directly serve the St. Paul Campus. The G Line would bring a substantial upgrade to transit service between the St. Paul Campus and areas to the east with several possible connections with other rapid transit routes.

East of Downtown St. Paul the G Line would mostly or entirely replace Route 63, which already operates close to high frequency levels. Route 363 is officially proposed to replace Route 63 east of Sun Ray Shopping Center, and this would provide connections with the Gold Line and G Line.

H Line (Kenwood Station-Downtown St. Paul)

The H Line would substantially replace Routes 2 and 3. With the H Line connecting to the Green Line Extension at Kenwood Station (21st Street), this will make the station much more useful.

J Line (Richfield-New Brighton)

The J Line would substantially replace Route 4, but local service would still be needed where the J Line wouldn’t serve (Penn Avenue branch of Route 4 and south of 66th Street on Lyndale and Penn Avnues).

K Line (Downtown St. Paul-White Bear Lake)

This corridor would likely require further study to determine if ridership would be enough for aBRT implementation.

M Line (Little Canada-South St. Paul)

Between Downtown St. Paul and Little Canada the M Line would serve areas east of I-35E while the F Line would serve areas west of I-35E. Between Downtown St. Paul and South St. Paul the M Line would serve areas along Smith Avenue and Thompson Avenue while the F Line would serve areas along Robert Street. The M Line would also provide a connection to regional rail service in South St. Paul.

O Line (Opus Station-West 7th)

This would substantially or completely replace Route 46 and provide high frequency crosstown service connecting with several north-south rapid transit routes. The O Line would also go directly through the Ford Site area that will be redeveloped in the near future. For a short segment east of the Ford Site, the O Line would take advantage of abandoned railroad right-of-way for a quick route to West 7th with only a few at-grade crossings. While as far west as the Grandview area of Edina makes sense for aBRT service, further west to Opus in Minnetonka is uncertain as it’s mostly low-density development until just west of Highway 169.

R Line (Minneapolis-Robbinsdale)

With the Blue Line Extension in limbo, this route along West Broadway could get higher priority in order to improve transit on the north side and, to a lesser extent, the northwest suburbs. Whether or not the Blue Line Extension is built in its proposed form, the R Line would be an important aBRT route through North Minneapolis in addition to the C and D Lines.

The rest of the bus system should not be ignored. As part of Metro Transit’s Network Next, improvements are being planned for regular bus routes in addition to planning for future aBRT routes. That should include regular bus routes receiving higher frequency service, simplifying the bus network by trimming branches or giving branches their own route number, and straightening certain routes that currently have several turns. Crosstown bus routes should have higher frequency to complement the hub-and-spoke system of the rapid transit and regional rail routes.


Editor’s Note 06/14: This article initially stated incorrectly that the Rush Line’s (Purple Line) earliest possible completion date was 2028. In fact, it could be completed as soon as 2026. It also stated that there would be a park & ride station at the Downtown White Bear Lake stop, when in fact the station design had changed to exclude the park & ride.

About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.