The Quarterly Transit Report–December 2021

Two opposite things are happening on December 4–a big service increase and an even bigger service reduction. The increase is the opening of the Orange Line bus rapid transit on I-35W from downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville along with new or upgraded feeder routes. Together they add 1342 weekly bus trips to the system. Metro Transit is currently 80 drivers short of what it needs to run its system. In order to have enough drivers to run the Orange Line and hopefully the rest of the system, they’re cutting service by 3142 trips per week.

Intro to the Orange Line
The Orange Line replaces the I-35W portion of Route 535 and extends it from Bloomington to Burnsville. The new frequency is 15 minutes all day, with weekend service added. Route 535 ran a 15-minute rush hour, 30-minute midday and had no weekend service.

Replacing Route 535 involves some tradeoffs. The 535 sprouted several off-freeway branches in Bloomington to serve Lyndale Avenue, the industrial park around 94th and James, and, most importantly, Normandale Community College at 98th and France Avenue. Each of those provided one-seat rides that will now require transferring to a feeder bus. On the positive side, the Orange Line will feature faster Minneapolis-Bloomington trips within the 35W corridor, more frequent service to its online stations and expanded access to Burnsville. Anyone traveling from downtown to 98th Street will save 6-10 minutes. The upgraded feeder buses will extend the Orange Line’s reach, and will open up more suburb-to-suburb trip options.

Within downtown, the Orange Line will use the Marquette-2nd Avenue S. bus lanes, same as the 535. Once on 35W, it will stop at the impressive, newly opened Lake Street Station, with transfer connections to Route 21 Selby-Lake and the little known Route 27, the 26th Street-28th Street crosstown to Hiawatha Avenue. The 535 and other express buses were unable to stop at Lake Street during the freeway construction, so hopefully there will be a ridership revival. For passengers traveling with their bikes, there’s a new direct connection along Stevens Avenue to the Midtown Greenway.

The existing 46th Street Station offers connections to Route 46 46th Street Crosstown, Route 11 4th Avenue South and Route 18 Nicollet Avenue.

At 66th Street the bus briefly exits the freeway to connect with Route 515 66th Street Crosstown to Southdale and Mall of America.

As the 535 did, the Orange Line exits at 76th Street and stops on Knox Avenue next to Best Buy headquarters. There it connects with Route 540 76th-77th Street Crosstown. The transfer point on 76th and the large park-ride lot behind Best Buy are almost two blocks from each other. The 535 stopped at both, but the Orange Line makes a single stop in the middle. I predict the longer walk will discourage both transferring and park-ride use.

The Orange Line burrows under I-494 on a new bus-only roadway. Route 535 had to detour off 76th to reach the park-ride, then return to 76th and cross 494 on Penn Avenue. The new tunnel shortens the trip by a mile and avoids seven stoplights, saving several minutes. The tradeoff is it misses much of the Southtown-area retail.

There’s a station where it crosses American Blvd., with connections to the Route 4 Lyndale and Penn Avenue branches, to Route 538 Southdale-MOA via 86th Street, new Route 534 to Lyndale in Bloomington and west Bloomington, and to the revived Route 542 American Boulevard Crosstown.

From there it’s back on 35W to the South Bloomington Transit Center/Park-ride at 98th Street. There it connects with Route 18 Nicollet Avenue, Route 534 Lyndale Avenue, Route 539 MOA-Normandale College, Route 546 Old Shakopee Road and Route 547 Southwest Bloomington. Although the northbound Orange Line buses can exit and reenter the freeway quickly, the southbound buses require a circuitous and time-consuming detour. An online station would been expensive, but it would have saved several minutes.

After crossing the Minnesota River, the Orange Line terminates at the new Heart of the City Station in Burnsville on Nicollet Avenue at Travelers Trail. The idea was to stop within walking distance of some fairly high density development. However, it fails to serve Minnesota Valley Transit Authority’s Burnsville Transit Station with its huge park-ride, located a couple of blocks away across Highway 13. I’m told that MVTA refused Metro Transit’s request to serve Burnsville Station. That means no Burnsville park-ride and no connection to Route 495 to Savage and Shakopee. It also makes it inconvenient for downtown commuters on MVTA’s non-stop, rush hour-only Route 460 express to use the Orange Line if they need to travel in the off-peak.

One has to question MVTA’s commitment to the Orange Line’s success. It makes sense that MVTA will continue to operate the rush hour Route 460 expresses to downtown (31 minutes versus 38 for the Orange Line). But it appears they also plan to keep running their off-peak Route 465 (33 minutes to downtown, including a stop at 98th Street) in competition with the Orange Line. This has happened before. When Dakota County shifted operation of the Red Line BRT from MVTA to Metro Transit, MVTA responded by creating a duplicate competing service between Apple Valley Transit Station and Mall of America, the currently-suspended Route 442X.

On the positive side, MVTA has promised a new Route 425 connection to Burnsville Center and their Route 444 Burnsville Parkway will also connect because it happens to pass the Heart of the City Station on Nicollet Avenue.

There’s one more station (actually half a station) in Burnsville at Burnsville Parkway. Only northbound trips stop there after leaving Heart of the City. Anyone on a southbound trip wishing to return to Burnsville Parkway has to sit through an 8-minute layover at Heart of the City. I predict it will generate few riders.

Most of the corridor has traffic advantages for buses. Buses will have priority at almost all the traffic signals south of downtown. There are exclusive bus lanes in downtown, HOV lanes from downtown to 66th Street, and from 98th Street to Burnsville. There are HOV entrance ramps everywhere but 82nd Street. From 66th to 76th Street, too short a distance to merge into and out of the HOV lanes, there are bus-only shoulders. The distance between 82nd and 98th Streets is also too short for the buses to use the HOV lane. Bus-only shoulders would provide an advantage, but don’t exist at present.

Will the Orange Line attract more than the 535’s pre-Covid total of about 1700 riders per day? It’s a valid question because of the limited potential for walk-up ridership at the stations, and because previously one-seat rides now require a transfer. There’s no Burnsville park-ride lot. The line is going to be very dependent on transfers to and from other bus routes. Greater frequency is a plus, along with faster travel time, the Burnsville extension, the new Lake Street Station, weekend service, nicer stations and a more extensive feeder bus network.

The service cuts
Because of Covid, Metro Transit had to drastically reduce service to minimize its financial losses. Now it must cut further to have enough drivers and train operators to meet the scheduled service. Such is the difficulty of recruiting new drivers in these days of labor shortage.

As one would expect, the cuts were targeted where they would impact the fewest riders, with one possible exception. Twelve more peak-only commuter routes are suspended, recognizing that the downtown office workers simply haven’t returned yet. Other routes that run all day are seeing their rush hour frequencies trimmed.

Ridership on some of the heaviest routes is half or less of what it was pre-Covid, so their frequencies are being reduced. The LRTs had already gone from 10-minute frequency to 12-minute. Now the A Line and Route 2 are also going from 10-minute frequency to 12-minute. Route 18 is going from 7.5 minute to 10 minute. On three routes the Saturday service is being reduced to the same level as Sunday.

There are routes that have always had weak ridership. Half the trips on Routes 70 Burns Avenue and 219 Sunray-White Bear have been cut, along with a third of the trips on the Red Line BRT and Route 87 Rosedale-Highland Park. The 18G Grand Avenue branch and suburban circulators 223 Rosedale-Maplewood Mall and 604 St. Louis Park have been completely suspended.

The most potentially controversial cuts are the three local routes that serve the intermediate stops left behind by the Green Line LRT and and theA line and C Line BRT. Routes 16 University Avenue, 84 Snelling Avenue and 19 Penn Avenue N. have been completely suspended. Those prime center city corridors now only have limited stop service, generally stopping about every half mile. Hard to believe that won’t result in some push back.

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.