Metro Transit's stop at Penn & West Broadway at the Bottineau stop

Rerouting the Bottineau Blue Line

When Hennepin County prevented the BNSF and Canadian Pacific railroads from building a freight connection where their lines crossed in Crystal, that killed any chance of light rail sharing the BNSF right of way for seven miles through Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park. That alignment is no longer available, so what now?

I’d been in the camp of those who supported the BNSF alignment because it would have been competitive with express bus speeds for suburban commuters headed downtown. I felt that detouring the line through north Minneapolis would slow it to the point of irrelevance for suburbanites. Also discouraging was the staff’s conclusion that running down narrow Penn Avenue from Broadway to Olson Highway would require the removal of all buildings from one side of the street. That sounds like Rondo all over again and was not acceptable. 

I’ve changed my mind. I drove along County Road 81, then Broadway, Emerson/Fremont and North 7th Street to see if LRT might fit and still have reasonable travel time. My conclusion—it will.

Everyone seems to agree that County Road 81 looks feasible for the portion outside Minneapolis.

Upon entering Minneapolis, CR81 narrows and turns into West Broadway which has four lanes in the rush hours when parking is prohibited. At all other hours it’s two lanes with parking. I can think of a couple of different options.

Option A: Eliminate parking and give two lanes to LRT. That reduces traffic to two lanes, certainly in keeping with the city’s new pro-transit priorities.

Option B: Run streetcar style in mixed traffic. It’s only for a mile or so and lost time might be one minute.

The obvious route from Broadway to downtown is to split the LRT via the Emerson/Fremont one-way pair, then take North 7th Street. Emerson/Fremont have parking, one traffic lane and a bike lane. I’m hoping they can squeeze in one track, otherwise remove the parking. Or it can run as a streetcar probably with no time delay.

North 7th Street is plenty wide to accommodate the LRT, which will have to ramp up over Olson Highway to access the existing line.

What about speed?

Based on existing LRT station-to-station timings, 2 minutes in most cases, I estimate that a trip on the original Bottineau alignment from Hennepin Avenue to Brooklyn Park would be 25 minutes. That assumes plenty of 55 mph running, interrupted only by 8 traffic signals on Olson Highway. 

Once out of Minneapolis, the alternate alignment on County Road 81 has comparable top speeds to the BNSF corridor, but has to negotiate ten signalized intersections. The question is how many can either be bridged or given LRT signal preemption. If done right, the running time for that segment should be the same as via the BNSF. However, I think there will be pressure to add a stop at 36th Avenue  and that will add one minute.

If the LRT has to run streetcar-style in mixed traffic on Broadway, Emerson/Fremont and North 7th Street, the new 25 mph Minneapolis speed limit would have a negative impact. If the LRT gets its own lanes, it can run faster than traffic, 30, 35 and maybe even 40 mph. Signal priority will also help. 

So what’s the end-to-end travel time for the reroute through the North Side? If the LRT runs in mixed traffic like a streetcar on Broadway and Emerson/Fremont, I estimate 30 minutes. If LRT gets its own lanes within the city, it would be 28 minutes. That’s only 3-5 minutes slower than via the BNSF, which isn’t much. Remember when the Hamline, Victoria and Western Avenue stations were added to the Green Line? It slowed the trains by about three minutes, but no one really noticed and it was worth it for the increased ridership.

Spending those extra minutes to run through the North Side will dramatically increase ridership. North Memorial Hospital will be served, as will the commercial and residential development along Broadway and at 36th Avenue N. North Siders will have faster direct access to suburban jobs and North Hennepin College. Besides serving considerably more population, running through the city will open up transfer connections to the C Line and D Line BRTs, which will still be needed and perfectly viable in the Penn Avenue and Emerson-Fremont corridors.  It will also add connections to the Route 30 Broadway Crosstown bus to Northeast.

But what about those suburban express riders?

Every successful commuter express bus corridor has one or more big park-ride lots that concentrate riders, justifying frequent service. In the Bottineau Corridor those lots are the Maple Grove Transit Station and Maple Grove Parkway, both located just off I-94 interchanges. Combined they have 1729 spaces and were 86 percent occupied according to the 2019 Met Council Park-ride survey. They serve Maple Grove but also intercept commuters driving in from Rogers, St. Michael and points beyond. They have non-stop express buses to downtown every 10 minutes. Route 781 takes 21 minutes to travel from the Maple Grove Transit Station to 4th and Hennepin. They can bypass congestion because there are shoulder bus lanes all the way to downtown. Will those commuters switch to light rail?

The Bottineau Line could have been routed to replace the express buses at those park-rides, but instead it’s going up Broadway to North Hennepin College and the Target campus. It will have park-rides, including the 565-car facility already in existence at 63rd Avenue, located just south of I-94. Even running through the North Side, I estimate travel time from 63rd Avenue to 5th and Hennepin will be 18-20 minutes, depending on the amount of signal priority. That is competitive with the express buses because the rail route is physically shorter than I-94. This tells me that LRT will divert some of the Maple Grove commuters, while quite a few will stay on the express buses, because:

  1. The LRT won’t have enough park-ride capacity handy to I-94. 
  2. Park-riders generally want to exit the freeway and switch to bus earlier in their trip. The LRT lots require staying on I-94 longer.

What the LRT will do is attract great numbers of suburban riders to Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves and Lynx games. It’s a cheap and convenient ride.

Now that I’m convinced it can be done without an unreasonable time penalty, I’m a convert to the North Side alignment, but no bulldozing of houses to achieve it.

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.

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22 thoughts on “Rerouting the Bottineau Blue Line

  1. Eric Ecklund

    I’m definitely in favor of an alignment serving the North Side, but I think it should be underground. It would only be about two miles of tunneling and two or three underground stations. Speeds up travel time, less construction impact to homes and businesses, trains don’t have to deal with car and pedestrian traffic like the Green Line does on University, etc.

    1. jeffk

      I wouldn’t be so quick to call the destruction of buildings on one side of a street ‘Rondo all over again’. It’s definitely a downside, but the I-94 trench and associated frontage road and ramps is a half mile wide, and lowers property values and increases pollution far beyond that. A light rail line is thirty feet wide and makes nearby places more valuable. It’s just not the same, and that fear should not prevent us from giving low income neighborhoods access to these massive investments.

  2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    Instead of Emerson/Fremont, why not use Lyndale N?

    The stretch from Broadway to Plymouth provides just a single local access point, at N 14th Ave, which is a crossing. Otherwise, the street is entirely used by travelers going through. LRT could be built with dedicated lanes on the street and there would be virtually no impacts to access for other people. The LRT could also make a wider and faster turn with the help of the massive Cub Foods site (it would be bad to lose a grocery, but it could be rebuilt with greater intensity as part of the project).

  3. Jerome Johnson

    Thanks for the report and analysis. I would argue that the running time difference between the BNSF right of way between Penn/Olson and Brooklyn Blvd and the proposed street running route over Penn and West Broadway and then to Brooklyn Blvd is more like 10 minutes in favor of the BNSF route due mostly to BNSF averaging over 50 mph from Golden Valley Road to Robbinsdale and mid 40’s from Robbinsdale into Brooklyn Park while the street running over Penn will net out well under 20 mph – possible under 15, as seen today on the Green Line between the U and Hwy 280. There is also the matter of consistency, with street running rail performing more erratically than an unimpaired line thanks to traffic signal interference, lower posted speed limits and random hinderances. Putting that line underneath Penn and then West Broadway, though, is another story as long as station stops are spaced wisely — say at just Penn & GV Road and then North Memorial — before emerging at grade heading north. It would boost ridership, make transferring more efficient and leave the freight rail ROW for eventual trail development without disrupting With Park wetlands when freight finally dries up completely on that line. You just have to find the mone

    1. Eric Ecklund

      I wouldn’t count on BNSF abandoning that route. Even if they mothballed it I believe they’re required to allow a railroad to bid on the right-of-way before officially abandoning it, so there’s always the possibility another railroad, likely a shortline, would take it.

    2. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs Post author

      Because of acceleration, deceleration and wait times at stations, the LRT will barely exceed a 30 mph average on the BNSF right of way.

      1. Jerome Johnson

        I am using net speeds in the mid to high 30’s between Olson Hwy and 63rd using the BNSF ROW, which is what the Gold Line out in LA reaches between North Pasadena and Arcadia on unimpaired (freeway median) right of way that Bottineau LRT should be able to match on its ROW. I’m Using 14 to 18 mph net over the Penn-Broadway-63rd stretch for the street running option, which is just a bit slower than Green Line between Prior and Rice, best I can tell, but am assuming the right of way will be less protected than University Avenue, leading to more interference. I also assume that transit time consistency will be weaker with the street running option, meaning schedules less reliable and thus more average platform wait time for commuters, but have not quantified this. So, I’m getting about nine minutes difference, assuming my distances are right for just the trains; probably a few minutes more station to station. Different story if it goes underground at Penn.

  4. Sheldon Gitis

    If the Isaacs plan is “to run streetcar-style” on “Broadway, Emerson/Fremont and North 7th Street” or in other words, a streetcar line for the entire City of Minneapolis portion of the route, why not just do a streetcar line, and let express buses from the boondocks feed a Brooklyn Center or Brooklyn Park station where the streetcar line starts? Why spend another 100-something million dollars applying for a federal grant for an LRT line when a street car line could be built for a lot less money with no federal funds?

    1. Monte Castleman

      If a person is willing to ride a bus to get to the start of a streetcar line, chances are they’re willing to ride a bus all the way into the city, so why not just continue to do that from the suburban park and rides. I’m not saying only building the “streetcar” section is a good or bad option in the big picture, but people that would drive to the park and rides in northern Brooklyn Park aren’t going to take a bus to where the Broadway lines starts. And even if we could and want to accommodate a park and ride on Broadway, chances are they’ll just continue to drive all the way into downtown once they’ve gone that far in their cars.

      1. Sheldon Gitis

        I’m saying run the Broadway line out to a transit station-park and ride in Brooklyn Park or Brooklyn Center, just make it a streetcar line rather the an LRT line, and for half the cost. And if the folks in Maple Grove or wherever, in order to maybe save some time, don’t want to park for free and avoid the hassle of traffic and parking in the city, so be it.

  5. Bill Dooley

    I do not believe the time preferences of suburban riders should take precedence over the needs of low-income riders who live within the city limits of Minneapolis. If suburban riders are dissatisfied with the travel times into downtown Minneapolis, they can buy a car. Low-income riders rarely have that option.

    1. Eric Ecklund

      Not everyone in the suburbs can afford a car. And even if they can afford a car, that doesn’t mean they want the financial burden of paying for gas, insurance, and maintenance.

      1. Bill Dooley

        OK-then commit to the longer commute time and help out those in North Minneapolis rather than bypassing it because it adds to the commute time.

  6. Ron H

    I’ve noticed that end-to-end time is a common metric for judging new transit routes. This seems to speak to the suburban commuter going from a park-n-ride to downtown. I question what other constituents and metrics we should consider.

    Given this is an LRT, the suburban commuters represent only a percentage of total ridership. The current Green Line had a pre-pandemic weekday ridership that exceeds 40,000 rides. Even if a 2000 space park-n-ride is constructed, suburban commuters would represent 10% of the riders (5% to work, 5% home).

    Who are the other 90% of riders? What are their needs? And, therefore what additional metrics should we use for judging new transit routes?

    1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs Post author

      I’m agreeing with you that end-to-end travel time should not be the main criterion, but it was the justification for having the original route bypass North Minneapolis. My argument is that even if it’s routed through Minneapolis, the travel time for suburbanites is still competitive, yet the North Side is served properly. That’s a win-win. It works for both the urban and suburban riders.

      1. Brian

        Which LRT route is faster than an express route it replaced? It is difficult to replace a non-stop express bus with an LRT with many stops and still have the same riding time.

        The Green line takes over twice as long as the 94 Express bus to go between Minneapolis and St. Paul. My co-workers lives in downtown St. Paul and works in downtown Minneapolis. He takes the 94 even though frequency was cut quite a bit once the Green line started operating.

        1. Jerome johnson

          LRT done right – 25 mph net speeds or more – should beat express buses, at least between activity centers if not through activity centers like downtowns Minneapolis or St. Paul, where there are just too many stops and too much street interference through town (why LRTs should go below grade in downtowns). But Green Line all the way through St Paul, especially Fairview going east, is not really LRT; it is a slightly souped up
          Modern Streetcar trundling along at about 15 mph thanks, in order, to street interference, station spacing and route circuity. Small wonder there is little in the way of private sector, market rate development east of Snelling. SWLRT, as I recall, should beat the 25 mph threshold between Van Whyte and at least United Health. Bottineau, if done right with well spaced stations, should also beat the 25 mph mark between Van Whyte and the end point. It should be especially fast between Van Whyte and downtown Crystal, with hopefully efficient transfer facilities at GV Road and Robbinsdale. That is what an unimpaired ROW does for a system. Should it run over Penn Ave and Broadway streets in Minneapolis, you can forget about anything close to 25 mph, which results in little in the way of mobility improvements for deserving north side riders. It is efficient transferability to/from the high speed, high volume rail trunk carrier that is the way to deal with gentrification. Put another way, the defining performance metric for LRT is really how the two-seat rider is processed.

  7. Brian

    I expect a lot of riders from the suburban park and rides would simply start driving if they had to transfer from an express bus to LRT. Just the transfer alone will drive away a number of riders. Who wants to freeze in the winter or bake in the summer waiting for the LRT especially when those riders probably just sat out in the weather waiting for their express bus? The wait could be upwards of ten minutes if the train pulls out just as the bus arrives.

    If my suburban express bus was replaced by LRT I would have to strongly consider driving. For a 15 mile trip if there was a stop every mile that means an easy 15 minutes extra in stops at one minute per stop. Before COVID the bus was taking me upwards of 45 minutes a day more than driving. Another 20 or 30 minutes on top of that would push me over the edge.

    1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

      You’ve misread it. I didn’t propose transferring from an express bus to the LRT. I wondered if express bus riders who use the Maple Grove park-rides would drive a couple of miles farther to use the LRT park-ride. I believe some would, but many would stay with the express bus to avoid driving further on congested I-94.

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