Minnesota’s Hidden Intercity Bus Network Revisited

Everyone has been anticipating the Northern Lights Express train between Minneapolis and Duluth, but did you know that vans and buses already make 18 daily round trips between Duluth and the Twin Cities, mostly to MSP Airport? It’s great that Amtrak will finally add a second train to Chicago via Winona and LaCrosse, but did you know that vans and buses already connect Winona and LaCrosse with the Twin Cities six times each day?

Politicians have recently been intrigued by a fictional multi-billion dollar hyper-loop from the Twin Cities to Rochester. But three different operators serve the Rochester-MSP market with 34 daily round trips.

All the lamenting about the lack of public transportation between the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota ignores the network of scheduled private airport shuttle vans, supplemented by a smaller number of traditional intercity buses. I wrote a Streets.mn piece about the airport shuttles in 2014. Since then, the number of trips has increased and several of the operations have consolidated under a single national provider.

Revealing What’s Hidden

True, the airport vans mostly ignore the downtowns. The only other destinations they sometimes serve are the Mall of America and the VA Hospital, since both are close to the airport. However, once at the airport, a traveler can transfer every 15 minutes to the Blue Line to reach Minneapolis or Bus Route 54 to reach St. Paul. Minnesota Valley Transit Route 495 offers infrequent but direct service to Burnsville, Savage and Shakopee. Southwest Transit’s demand responsive Prime service connects to Eden Prairie.

If the shuttles served the downtowns, it would still be necessary to transfer to local transit to complete the trip, so it’s hard to argue that the airport isn’t a valid entry point to the Twin Cities. I first researched the airport shuttles in 2012 and the shuttle vans made 57 daily round trips. By 2014 that had grown to 97. Now there are 102. Besides serving MSP, Land to Air Express is running three times daily from Mankato to Rochester, including once via Austin and Albert Lea.

Signage for Groome departure schedules from MSP to Duluth. Photo by author.

Groom Transportation operates the most van routes. A national company, it runs the same type of shuttles to 12 other airports. Here are its routes in Minnesota:

  • Rochester: 18 round trips, including stops at the Mayo Clinic, IBM and area hotels.
  • Duluth: 15 round trips, with intermediate stops at Scanlon/Cloquet, Hinckley, Moose Lake, Pine City and North Branch.
  • Eau Claire: 19 round trips with intermediate stops at Menomonie, Baldwin and Hudson, Wisconsin.
  • La Crosse: 5 round trips, with intermediate stops at Lewiston, St. Charles and Winona
  • Alexandria to St. Cloud to the airport: 8 round trips, with intermediate stops at Osakis, Sauk Center, Melrose, Albany, Avon, St. Johns University and St. Joseph.
  • Brainerd to St. Cloud to the airport: 10 round trips, with intermediate stops at camp Ripley, Little falls and Royalton.

Note: At St. Cloud the Alexandria and Brainerd trips are combined, and additional trips added, to create 17 round trips, with intermediate stops at Clearwater, Monticello and Albertville.

Land to Air Express has 10 round trips from Mankato, with intermediate stops at St. Peter, and some stopping at Le Seuer, Belle Plaine, Jordan, Shakopee and Mall of America.

Rochester Shuttle Service has 16 round trips from Rochester to MOA and the airport.

Northfield Lines has two round trips daily (three on weekends) from Northfield, including St. Olaf and Carlton colleges, to MOA and the airport

But that’s not all. Sun Country Airlines has started through-ticketed Landline once-daily bus service to Brainerd, Rochester, St. Cloud, La Crosse and Eau Claire.

In addition to the airport shuttles, the skeletal remains of traditional intercity bus service to downtown Minneapolis still exist with 19 departures.

  • 3 trips Greyhound to Chicago, Milwaukee via Eau Claire
  • 1 trip Flix Bus to Chicago, Milwaukee via Eau Claire
  • 3 trips Land to Air to Mankato via St. Peter
  • 2 trips Jefferson to Des Moines, Kansas City via Faribault, Owatonna, Albert Lea
  • 1 trip Jefferson to Madison, Milwaukee via Winona, La Crosse
  • 1 trip Jefferson to Sioux Falls via Albert Lea, Jackson, Worthington
  • 2 trips Jefferson to Fargo-Moorhead via St. Cloud, Alexandria, Fergus Falls
  • 2 trips Jefferson to Duluth express
  • 1 trip Jefferson to Duluth via Hinckley, Cloquet
  • 1 trip Jefferson to Grand Forks via St. Cloud, Brainerd, Bemidji, Crookston
  • 1 trip Jefferson to Sioux Falls via St. Cloud, Willmar, Marshall Pipestone
  • 1 trip Megabus to Milwaukee via Eau Claire, Wausau, Green Bay

Total: 19 trips

Put it all together and here’s the most frequent van/bus service to the Twin Cities from out-state:

  • 34 trips Rochester
  • 24 Eau Claire
  • 21 St. Cloud
  • 18 Duluth
  • 11 Brainerd
  • 10 Mankato
  • 10 Alexandria
  • 6 Winona, La Crosse

Creating a Real Network

This is indeed a transportation network and it’s already in place. With a modest amount of corporate collaboration and a little public assistance it could become a true regional system and much more user friendly.

Consider what could cheaply and easily be done with a little private/public cooperation. Here’s a short list of easy wins:

  • Seamless user information on a single website linked to Metro Transit’s and the other out-state transit providers. This will open up the option of multi-carrier trips passing through the metro from one out-state city to another. Planning such a trip today requires digging through multiple websites and purchasing separate tickets for each leg.
  • The individual services should be marketed collectively as a system.
  • Joint airport ticket counter staffing (each carrier currently has its own agent or none at all). This will reduce total cost and improve customer service.
  • Coordinate arrival and departure times to reduce competitive duplication, and facilitate carrier-to-carrier transfers at the airport.
  • Subsidize fares for seniors and low income persons or offer to buy unused seats at a discount.
The airport bus terminal has plenty of room to accommodate the shuttle vans, currently located at the other end of the parking ramp. Photo by author.
  • Consolidate the MSP airport bus and shuttle terminals, currently located at opposite ends of the Lindbergh (Terminal 1) parking garage. There’s plenty of room for them at the spacious bus terminal above the LRT station. This will simplify transfers between the shuttles, conventional buses and Metro Transit.
  • Locate pickups at local transit centers in cities like Duluth, St. Cloud, Winona and Rochester to encourage transfers with local transit providers. Stops can also be conveniently made at some Twin Cities satellite transit centers like Sunray on St. Paul’s east side. Coordinate schedule times to connect with local transit.
  • MnDOT could authorize the shuttle vans and intercity buses to use the 300 miles of metro area shoulder bus lanes to escape traffic congestion.

Such a network would be a win/win for the providers and the traveling public. I want to emphasize that the carriers would remain separate private companies. The state would simply add value by selectively investing in a service that’s already viable. The private carriers’ bottom lines would improve through lower costs, additional riders, better service coordination and joint marketing. This is low hanging fruit. Could it actually happen?

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.