Questioning the B Line BRT

The State Legislature has approved the bonding to build the bus rapid transit (BRT) B Line, which would replace much of Route 21 Selby-Lake from downtown St. Paul to Uptown. They’re at the conceptual planning level, but there are still some crucial details to work out. This includes the shape of the remaining local service that will continue to serve intermediate stops and off-line destinations.

This post will also question why the BRT should run on Lake Street, when a rail line along the Midtown Greenway would provide far superior service.

First, the bus issues. It has already been decided that the B Line will bypass the current Route 21 Midway jog up to University Avenue. While this will speed the trip for through riders, it will disenfranchise the large number of riders with destinations along University, as well as those transferring to/from the Green Line. In 2017, that was 866 boardings per weekday. Leaving that many existing riders without service would be irresponsible. It’s really important to keep Route 21 local service via the University Avenue jog. Otherwise the Selby neighborhood will effectively be cut off from crucial shopping access, as well as the light rail transit (LRT) connection. These days low income, minority neighborhoods should not be victimized by supposed transit improvements.

The B Line will also bypass the Chicago-Lake Transit Center and the Uptown Transit Center. Both are located a block north of Lake Street and serving them would add travel time. That means returning to on-street bus stops at Chicago Avenue and Hennepin Avenue. While the Chicago-Lake Transit Center was created to better serve the Midtown Exchange building and Northwestern Hospital, the secondary goal was to leave the crime-ridden intersection of Lake and Chicago. The transit center has been a much safer place to transfer between buses. At Lake & Chicago, passengers were tempted to cross the street against the light in heavy traffic to make a close connection. At the transit center, they only have to cross a quiet driveway.

It should be noted that the connecting D Line stop on Chicago Avenue may be located opposite the transit center, requiring a one-block walk to Lake Street. That’s inconvenient for a transfer point that sees 3000 passengers per day.

A similar situation occurs at Hennepin Avenue. The B Line will bypass the Uptown Transit Station, substituting on-street stops at Hennepin. The question is where the E Line Hennepin BRT will stop. If it stops only at the Uptown Station, then again at 31st Street, the connection to the B Line will require an inconvenient walk.

Build the Greenway rail line instead

Image: Metropolitan Council.

That brings me to the most important point. Whatever happens east of Hiawatha, the rest of Lake Street would be much better served by building the Midtown Greenway rail line. The alternatives analysis that led to the B Line proposal called for both the rail line and the B Line BRT to be built. I believe this was an attempt to keep everyone happy, but it’s not based on financial reality. A rail line plus BRT plus local Route 21 is more service than the market will bear. In an open competition with rail, BRT won’t survive.

The reasons to prefer rail are faster travel time, better schedule reliability, higher ridership and more development potential. BRT advocates point out how much less expensive it is to build, but the Lake Street corridor is where you really get what you pay for.

Travel time and delay

It will take the BRT about 27 minutes to travel from Hiawatha Avenue to the new West Lake Green Line Station. However, anyone who drives Lake Street, especially in the PM rush hour, knows that delays are the norm because the street is jammed with traffic.

In contrast, the rail line will take 14 minutes from Hiawatha to West Lake. There will be no traffic delays because there is no traffic. There are few opportunities in this metro area to cut transit travel time in half. Imagine how that will improve the quality of life for people who rely on transit.

Ridership

The considerable Route 21 ridership on Lake Street is composed almost entirely of people who are transit dependent. Although Lake Street ridership will probably increase, as it has in other BRT corridors, buses won’t persuade many to leave their cars behind. Rail will.

Rail has proven it will attract everyone. It will be twice as fast as BRT, and a smoother, more attractive ride. Its location on the Greenway will also open up new transit markets. It will directly serve the Wells Fargo campus and Northwestern Hospital/Allina headquarters, two major traffic generators that currently see few transit riders because they are too far from Lake Street.

Development potential

Within the Twin Cities, light rail has a well-established record of spurring higher density redevelopment. Apart from the mixed-use project that accompanied the opening of the Southwest Station park-ride, I can find no case where buses, including the existing A Line, C Line and Red Line BRTs, have spawned anything. Redevelopment has been marching east along the Greenway. A rail line will accelerate that.

Operating cost

I’ve seen no comparison of BRT versus LRT operating cost in the Lake Street Corridor. Here’s what we do know. Because the LRT is so much faster, it will take four trains to run a 10-minute frequency between Hiawatha and the West Lake Green Line Station. It will take eight buses to do the same with BRT. That includes one bus to keep running Route 27, the 26th Street-28th Street crosstown that will go away under a rail option. Yes, the LRT will require people to maintain the track and overhead wire. I’ll bet the overall operating cost will be about the same for both modes, but rail provides a much better service.

Image: Metropolitan Council.
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 created the bus-only shoulder and developed 270 miles of them, a national model. He worked on the Met Council's first TOD handbook. 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.

9 thoughts on “Questioning the B Line BRT

  1. Nathan Bakken

    I respectfully disagree Aaron. Online stations will provide the same safety that the current CLTC does. It has been shown that customers want a more reliable and quicker trip, serving that transit center is such a waste of time. Also there is a circulator route proposed to connect Selby Ave to the shopping along University Ave, otherwise a quick transfer from B to A Lines can also get you in the area. A one and a half block walk is not an inconvenience for a transfer between E and B, and I say that as a 400lb man. I also believe the local 21 will be removed completely, so having the Rail in the greenway and the BRT on Lake/Marshall/Selby will complement each other well.

    1. Eric Ecklund

      If having both the B Line and Midtown LRT isn’t in “financial reality” then pretty much no transit improvement project currently proposed is in financial reality. There is definitely demand for both corridors to have transit improvements. However, my preference for the Midtown Corridor is BRT so it can go further than a light rail line just going between West Lake and Lake Street/Midtown.

    1. Eric Ecklund

      It wouldn’t operate on a street with mixed traffic so it’s not a streetcar. That’s just marketing because the Midtown Greenway Coalition doesn’t want a full double-track light rail line.

      1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

        Eric is right. Everyone thinks streetcar and LRT are two different things, but there’s tons of overlap. This is LRT.

  2. Nicole SalicaNicole Salica

    Since so many of the buildings at Chicago/Lake have been demolished, there’s probably room to move the transit center off the promenade and on to lake proper.
    Rail’d be fun too though. both would be nice!

  3. Dennis

    #16 is performing poorly I rode it several times at rush hour after missing the GL once I was the only one another time 2 of us the rest of time about 5 riders but it faster than GL at times.Most people switched to GL.When B start operating 21 will be obsolete.

    There are many crosstown routes that can connect to GL for Selby riders many are struggling to gererate enough riders to jusify the high subsidy to keep 21A.
    With 10 mins headways on A B and GL transferring will very convenient.There arent enough riders to justify keeping 21 A after B line open.Run 21E half hourly.
    None of these routes below are high ridership routes.
    Keep 3B on Western to Selby
    63 is 1/4 mile away
    65 to Victoria/Selby to Grand 3 large Grocery store
    83 on Lex

    Run 67 to Fairview/Selby
    63 on Cretin
    87 on Cleveland

    16 can run as circulator between Snelling or Hamline and Marion via Selby/Univ .

  4. Ian R Buck

    I do like the idea of having an LRT operating alongside the Greenway, but how do you propose having that LRT serve the rest of the B Line route? It would be very difficult to get tracks built along Selby Ave to downtown .

  5. JJ England

    I’ve long thought that using a setup similar to Boston’s Silver Line would be the ideal option for the Midtown Greenway. The Boston Silver Line uses a bus that operates similar to rail (using an electrified overhead line on dedicated ROW) until it hits city streets. Then it detaches from the overhead line and uses a diesel (possibly diesel hybrid) system to operate like a normal bus. I’d like to see that type of setup used in the Greenway. Specifically, the vehicle would run as an electrified bus in dedicated ROW within the Greenway. Once the vehicle gets east of Hiawatha, it would detach from the overhead wire and simply run as BRT along the rest of the proposed B Line Corridor through St. Paul. I tend to agree with Mr. Isaacs that it’s a significant missed opportunity to not use the Greenway. I also worry that once the B Line is constructed, it will become more difficult to advocate for transit in the Greenway (i.e., I worry that simply getting something halfway decent will be a barrier to getting something really great).

    I haven’t written any posts on StreetsMN before, but I might submit this idea in more detail as a post one of these days.

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