Simple and Not-So-Simple Tweaks to Improve MVTA’s Core Commuter Services

With COVID permanently changing commute patterns, transit agencies have had to find new ways to lure riders back to their services. The traditional rush-hour-only express bus network is no longer useful for many people, and in suburbs, alternatives are few and far between. However, some express bus routes provide a much more useful service to non-traditional commuters by operating in both directions at all times of day, allowing riders to reach downtown Minneapolis or suburban destinations at most any time, rather than just at rush hours. Some of these routes also extend to the University of Minnesota, capitalizing on the student population who often have schedules that traditional commuter transit is unable to serve. With office workers slowly coming back to their downtown offices, and students returning to the University with a new unlimited transit pass, transit agencies have a prime opportunity to regain ridership, even with commute patterns permanently changed and resources such as drivers stretched thin.

The Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA)’s Routes 465 and 475 are two that have great potential in the sphere of post-COVID transit. Both routes operate from the University campus through downtown Minneapolis, to the south metro suburbs, running alongside the region’s two highway bus rapid transit lines, the Orange and Red Lines, operated by Metro Transit. These routes generally provide a quick and reliable service, but there are many small improvements that could be made to simplify and speed them up even more. Looking beyond these, there are also obvious service combinations to be made that could save on scarce resources and improve the experience for all transit riders in the south metro.

The routes right now

The route of 465.
The route of the 465. Image: MVTA
The route of 475.
The route of the 475. Image: MVTA

The 465 and 475 operate similar service patterns and utilize the same Minneapolis routing. The 465 runs from the University of Minnesota to the Burnsville Transit Station, while the 475 runs from the University to the Apple Valley Transit Station. During the rush period, in the peak direction only, both routes bypass downtown Minneapolis and serve the University campus directly, with the 460 and 470 providing higher frequency service from the suburbs to downtown in the morning, and back to the suburbs in the evening. In off-peak times, the 465 and 475 take over both services, through-running downtown Minneapolis on their way between the suburbs and the University campus. Both routes also stop at I-35W and Lake Street station in Minneapolis, but only during off-peak service. Lake Street service is provided by the 460 and 470 when those routes are operating.

Thus, for most of the day, both routes run through downtown Minneapolis, primarily using Washington Avenue. Southbound buses operate westbound on Washington Avenue from the University campus, making a diversion northward at 3rd Avenue to serve the first bus stop on the Marq2 corridor, at Marquette Avenue and 2nd Street. From there, buses continue south on Marquette and east on 12th Street to a transit-only ramp leading to I-35W. Northbound buses operate on 2nd Avenue and Washington Avenue, making use of a new contraflow bus lane on 12th Street to get between I-35W and 2nd Avenue.

After departing downtown Minneapolis, both routes use I-35W, stopping at Lake Street only during off-peak times. The 465 continues south on 35W, making a stop at 98th Street Station in Bloomington, formerly known as South Bloomington Transit Center. This stop is skipped by some morning northbound buses, but is served at all other times of the day. The 465 then terminates at the Burnsville Transit Station, north of Highway 13 and across the highway from the Heart of the City business district.

The 475 splits from the 465 at the Crosstown Commons, using the Crosstown highway (Highway 62) and Cedar Avenue (Highway 77) to continue south to Eagan and Apple Valley. At Diffley Road in Eagan, the 475 exits Cedar Avenue and backtracks to stop at Cedar Grove Transit Station. The route returns to Cedar Avenue, and during off-peak times, makes a diversion east on McAndrews Road to serve the Minnesota Zoo. Returning once again to Cedar Avenue, the route terminates at the Apple Valley Transit Station.

Simple improvements

In riding both routes, I quickly noticed many potential areas for improvement, and some could be very simple to implement. One of my biggest gripes with the 465 and 475 is the slow routing through the Mill District and downtown. Using Washington Avenue requires buses to take an “exit” off of the expressway-style road carrying them across the Washington Avenue Bridge, and pass through many stoplights, as well as navigate down the oft-congested Mill District segment of Washington Avenue. Speed improvements could be made if MVTA utilized a different routing for the downtown segment of these lines, for example, by using 3rd and 4th Streets. Using this one-way pair would allow buses to continue from downtown directly onto the Washington Avenue Bridge without turns, bypass the Seven Corners area and its many stoplights, and skip congestion in the Mill District. This routing is used by Plymouth Metrolink and SouthWest Transit buses serving both the University campus and downtown, and should be adopted by MVTA to speed up service.

Map of route 695's alignment through Downtown Minneapolis.
The Minneapolis routing of SouthWest Transit’s route 695, using 3rd and 4th Streets, provides a faster trip. Image: Metro Transit

Another part of both routes with great potential is the stop at the new I-35W and Lake Street station. With many commuter routes and the Orange Line stopping at the station, passengers can travel between downtown Minneapolis and the station directly and frequently by taking any route. However, fare payment remains an issue when utilizing this option. Orange Line buses uses offboard pre-payment, charging local fares through ticket machines and Go-To Card readers at the station. MVTA’s express buses, however, utilize onboard fare payment, and it isn’t always clear exactly how much needs to be paid. When using Metro Transit’s online trip planner to plot a journey from Lake Street to downtown Minneapolis during the midday, the quoted fares are not consistent. The 465 is said to cost $2.00, the standard local fare, same as the Orange Line, while the 475 is quoted at $2.50, the express off-peak fare. Though three separate services, the routing between Lake Street and downtown is identical, and all routes should charge a consistent fare, ideally the lower local fare.

An example of inconsistent fares on the Trip Planner. The 465 trip is quoted as costing $2.00. Image: Metro Transit
An identical trip on the 475 is quoted as costing $2.50. Image: Metro Transit

The trip planner also shows a trip from Lake Street to the U of M on either the 465 or the 475 as costing the express fare, $2.50, while the reverse trip only costs $2.00.

During my rides of these routes, I noticed a lot of confusion over fare payment, from both drivers and riders. This delays buses and adds extra stress to riding transit. I also noticed northbound riders at Lake Street passing up MVTA’s routes, either unaware that they serve the same stops as the Orange Line, or concerned about the uncertain fare. MVTA and Metro Transit could improve and simplify the rider experience by deciding on and advertising a consistent fare for rides from Lake Street station. This way, riders won’t have to question which bus they should board. Drivers would also benefit from a simpler fare structure, as they wouldn’t have to argue with riders or keep tabs of where riders get on and off.

On the 465, there is another area where I noticed a possible change that could save time, and that is at 98th Street Station, formerly known as South Bloomington Transit Center. Due to the interchange configuration, southbound buses have to exit the highway, make a left turn, and loop around the parking lot, which adds time but is largely unavoidable. However, northbound buses could save time by using the Orange Line’s platform, which is located on the exit ramp and allows easy reentry to Interstate 35W, without having to make turns. Currently, the 465 exits the highway and turns into the transit center, stopping at Gate E, before having to turn back around to reenter the highway. By using the Orange Line platform, this maneuver could be avoided, and 465 riders would get to make use of the Orange Line’s upgraded station amenities, such as real-time information and heaters. Ultimately, an on-highway station should be a priority for 98th Street when the highway is next under reconstruction, but this simple change could save several minutes on a northbound 465 trip.

A map showing the 465’s current route and stopping location, in red, and my proposed route and stop, in orange. Image: Google Maps

On the 475, serving Eagan and Apple Valley, there is an even more obvious time-saving change that could be made. In 2017, an on-highway bus station was added to the Cedar Grove Transit Station, to serve the Red Line BRT, at a cost of nearly $15 million. Currently, the only service this station receives is the twice-hourly Red Line, while MVTA’s commuter buses drive right by and make a 10-minute diversion up frontage roads to the old part of the station. To save time and make the best use of this substantial public investment, MVTA should reroute the 475 to stop at the on-highway station, rather than taking the frontage road diversion.

Skyway at Cedar Grove in Eagan.
The skyway to the on-highway station at Cedar Grove in Eagan. Image: MVTA

More substantial changes

There are several simple-to-implement changes that could improve the experience on the 465 and 475, and there are also some more substantial changes to the area’s transit network that would improve frequency and connectivity while avoiding duplication of services. The 465 and 475 run side-by-side with Metro Transit BRT lines for the bulk of each route. The 465 closely follows the Orange Line, with the latter making more stops along the way, and having a different southern terminus. The Orange Line ends in Burnsville’s surprisingly-pleasant Heart of the City district, a walkable mixed-use area seeing substantial housing development. That type of built environment is always more conducive to transit, so it’s a shame that the 465 and most MVTA routes don’t directly service Heart of the City, instead terminating at a large park-and-ride facility across the wide and dangerous Highway 13 from the district. Consolidating these termini and providing better access to Heart of the City should be a top priority for MVTA, Metro Transit and the city of Burnsville going forward.

Route 465 terminates across a large highway from Burnsville’s walkable Heart of the City district

Not only could the southern termini be combined, but the routes could be merged in their entirety. Ignoring the messy politics behind the existence of the MVTA, it doesn’t make sense to have buses running similar frequencies and going to largely the same places, but operated by different agencies with different fare structures. In a time of especially constrained resources, particularly for transit operators, duplicative services like the 465 and the Orange Line must be reined in to make the best use of taxpayer money and to provide a simpler transit-riding experience. Frequencies on the Orange Line, which have never been able to meet expectations due to the operator shortage, could increase if the line’s four buses per hour are supplemented with the 465’s two runs per hour. Both routes quote a roughly half-hour travel time from their Burnsville termini to downtown Minneapolis, despite the Orange Line’s extra stops, so very little time would be lost for 465 riders in a combined service, in fact, the rider experience would only improve if higher frequencies and BRT amenities are provided.

The Orange Line’s Heart of the City station, showcasing some of the upgraded amenities of BRT

The 475, running primarily along Cedar Avenue, also has an opportunity to be combined with a BRT service. The existing Red Line and the 475 could be combined and extended into downtown Minneapolis. A small station on the exit ramp of Highway 77 at 66th Street could be constructed, providing new connections to this rapidly-developing area of Richfield, as well as to employers at the MSP Airport on the east side of the highway. The extended Red Line could stop at 46th and Lake Street stations in the center of I-35W, doubling up on frequency for those busy urban stations while providing non-downtown connections to Minneapolis destinations. Adding new stations and extending the route could help the struggling Red Line to pick up more passengers, and could eliminate the need for the 475 altogether.

As for University of Minnesota service, both routes could continue to exist to provide direct service to the University of Minnesota at rush hours as they do now. Alternatively, aggressive transit priority, such as queue jump lanes, signal priority, and better-enforced bus-only lanes, could be implemented in downtown Minneapolis, such that the Orange and Red Lines could be extended to the University campus without adding too much time to a run. Another option is to make speed and frequency improvements to the Green Line light rail, making better use of this major investment and enabling swift connections to the downtown bus network. The current inconsistent travel times and reduced frequencies of the Green Line discourage transfer activity, but those are not insurmountable issues, and solving them would not only improve the transit experience for urban light rail riders, but also for suburban commuters looking to access other parts of the metro area.

My fantasy diagram of consolidated and expanded Orange and Red Line service

MVTA provides high-quality services with the 465 and 475, offering all-day bidirectional connections between the University of Minnesota, downtown Minneapolis, and the south metro suburbs of Bloomington, Burnsville, Eagan and Apple Valley. There are, however, many areas of improvement possible for these routes, ranging from simple switches to more aspirational network changes. Buses and bus rapid transit are often touted by politicians as attractive options for their flexibility, so local leaders and transit agencies should make use of that flexibility by implementing obvious improvements. Implementing small improvements to the 465 and 475 while planning for two consolidated BRT routes in their place can help these routes bounce back from COVID and better serve a changing user base, including students who now have unlimited rides on transit. Political concerns and compromises have led to the existing service patterns and separate agencies that exist today, but these need to be reevaluated in the interest of better serving the entire region while making the best use of limited transit resources.

Wrigley Brick

About Wrigley Brick

Wrigley Brick is a University of Minnesota student interested in transit, cycling, and urban development. You can find him on the bus or on Twitter @wpb003.