Blue Line Extension Part 3: A BRT Proposal

Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a three-part series covering the METRO Blue Line extension project. This part will cover Bus Rapid Transit and bus route proposals for the northwest suburbs. Part one covered the history, background, criticisms, hopes, land use and future of the Blue Line; part two covered the land use issues currently faced in the corridor. 

For a transportation system to be successful, it needs a robust network. With plans for the Blue Line to reach Brooklyn Park, the current transit system in that area may need dramatic changes. Currently, transit in the northwest suburbs is infrequent, doesn’t seem user-centered and hardly goes east-west at all.

Blue Line riders who want to get beyond a half-mile radius of stations will need to take a lengthy walk or a tough bike ride. The same can be said for residents who want to catch the train. The Blue Line would be a massive improvement to transit in this area, but it can’t make the northwest metro truly accessible on its own. To maximize the efficacy of the Blue Line extension, we’ll need ways to access the stations, and I think I’ve devised the perfect first step.

It’s time we in the northwest metro get a new bus rapid transit (BRT) line. Behold: I propose the 13th BRT service in the Twin Cities, the METRO I Line! This (purely theoretical) BRT service would span roughly 18.9 miles and serve the cities of Maple Grove, Brooklyn Park, Coon Rapids and Blaine with 40 stations. Riders would get a one-seat ride from Maple Grove to Northtown Mall or vice-versa. The service would run east-west, making a connection with the Blue Line extension near the Brooklyn Boulevard station at Starlite Transit Center. Dream with me; let’s plan out this new service, examine the pros and cons, and make the case for the I Line while examining some other improvements that could serve the region.

I’ve even cooked up a promotion for the line, with music courtesy of legendary singer and songwriter Shirley Ellis:

Time for a Change

Relatively low ridership on suburban routes can make major transit investments in the suburbs seem like a big risk. Suburbs see low ridership because potential riders aren’t being served with what they need. The Blue Line’s first-mile, last-mile problem could be alleviated with the I Line, among other benefits we could see from this conceptual BRT service. 

Blaine

Northtown District Vision Plan | Illustration: Damon Farber, Gensler, SEH, and City of Blaine

Northtown Mall is resilient, but gradually declining. An ambitious 30-year redevelopment plan would transform the entire mall area into a mixed, dense, complete and multimodal neighborhood. The Blaine City Council passed a resolution to adopt the Northtown District Vision Plan in July 2022, but we may not see changes until at least 2030. All of this means the I Line may serve a redeveloped destination for the City of Blaine — or even be a part of making it viable.

The F Line BRT, projected to open in late 2026, will largely replace the 10 from downtown Minneapolis and also make Northtown Transit Center its northern terminus. While at Northtown, that transit center offers no direct connection to either Brooklyn Center or Brooklyn Park. This can require lengthy transfers and even a trip to downtown Minneapolis. The I Line, however, would help cut down on journey times that can range from 36 minutes to over two hours depending on departing time and destination.

Coon Rapids

Although Coon Rapids gets only a small share of the I Line, it could still see some use. Stations would connect with people, businesses and, most importantly, the future Northern Lights Express (NLX) station.

Adjacent to the Foley Park & Ride, Coon Rapids’ stop on the intercity higher-speed rail service connecting Minneapolis and Duluth will need options for people coming to or leaving the station without a car. The I Line would help extend the NLX’s gateway to Duluth across the northwest suburbs.

Conceptual layout of the Coon Rapids Northern Lights Express station | Image courtesy MnDOT

The Northstar Commuter rail service has a sizable service gap between the Fridley and Coon Rapids–Riverdale stations, and with NLX coming, failing to connect the two would be a missed opportunity. Northstar could share the station with NLX, and it could be part of the rail service’s transformation from underused suburban commuter rail to a speedy route to St. Cloud or beyond. All the Coon Rapids station really needs is a southbound platform to create transfer opportunities for both services.

Brooklyn Park 

In Brooklyn Park, the I Line would serve recreation and civic centers, along with the densest residential areas of Brooklyn Park, businesses and educational institutions like Hennepin Technical College.

The Blue Line extension also would connect with the I Line at Starlite Transit Center, near the Brooklyn Boulevard station. This would provide a gateway for Blue Line riders to get to other northwest destinations. Northwest residents also would have easier access to the Blue Line, which is established with downtown Minneapolis, MSP airport, the Mall of America and other popular destinations. 

At the proposed northern Blue Line terminus, the Oak Grove Parkway station, there should be a new bus station embedded with light rail. This would allow opportunities for new local and express routes in all directions, far and wide, to and from this light rail station.

Speaking of buses, at Starlite, I Line riders could transfer to the 724 to reach Brooklyn Center Transit Center. Maybe the C Line could be extended to Starlite instead. Metro Transit studied the possibility of establishing BRT service from Brooklyn Center to Starlite back in 2020, with projections to get buses on the ground by 2040 pending full funding. Furthermore, new local bus routes across the region could enhance ridership for both the Metro Blue and I lines.

Maple Grove

The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes and downtown Maple Grove itself are already a big draw for the northwest suburbs, but have minimal Metro Transit connections. A proposal to terminate the Blue Line in the City of Maple Grove was ultimately scrapped. The I Line would offer an alternative to I-94 for commuters, serve a major retail center and incentivize more public transit investments in general back into the city.

Route alternatives for Blue Line extension’s early phase | Image: Finance & Commerce

Maple Grove does have public transit in the form of Maple Grove Transit (MGT), but it’s just downtown express and shared curb-to-curb MyRide services throughout the city. (MyRide provides a reserve-in-advance service akin to Metro Mobility, with a service area limited to trips within, to or from Maple Grove.) As Maple Grove continues to develop, demand will grow; the city’s population is currently about 70,000, compared with Brooklyn Park’s 86,000. The city has added 9,000 residents since 2010, growing by nearly 15%, and in recent years it’s constructed housing that’s likely to draw more.

The I Line BRT service would connect future residents and businesses as redevelopment continues to transform Maple Grove’s depleting gravel mining sites. Buses would also service the northern portion of Maple Grove with Maple Grove Hospital, a developing area, and the Maple Grove campus of Boston Scientific. 

BRT Means Rapid

A southbound Muni bus on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, California | Image: Wikimedia Commons

For our proposed BRT line to legitimately be called “rapid,” it will need a few extra tools. Transit signal priority gives buses a longer or sooner green light at signalized intersections, though more innovations are possible.

Most of Maple Grove, if not the entire I Line corridor, can be fit for a dedicated median transitway and shoulder bus lanes. That would improve speed and reliability, providing a stronger incentive to ride the bus. Ideally, these lanes would operate 24/7 or at least during peak hours. Additionally, dedicated bus lanes allow buses to speed past traffic, and they could get their own signal, like light rail.

While sleek vehicles and stations are cool, frequent public transit is even cooler. I Line buses should come at least every eight minutes, from 5 in the morning through 11 at night with overnight service being every 12 to 15 minutes. Now that’s rapid! The schedule should also be coordinated with the Blue Line to ensure smooth transfers between the two. 

Conceptual, but Crucial

Whether you’re traveling to the northwest metro from the Blue Line, the F Line or even the D Line, it will be difficult to find options to get to other places in the northwest metro — unless you’re willing to walk or bike for an extended period of time. Maybe you could even pay extra for a rideshare, which is not ideal (and could become less so, if those services leave the Twin Cities).

That’s why the I Line and the need for more local bus routes in this part of the metro is pivotal.

We in the northwest suburbs and our cities need to positively integrate the Blue Line. This train is a crucial piece of infrastructure, but it may be harder for the line to succeed if we cannot connect it effectively to our communities. Public transit can and should go the extra mile to better the public’s investments.

The Blue Line Extension project’s Kyle Mianulli told me that the project is a “significant opportunity to make service changes and improvements to better serve the northwest metro and connect people to the [extension].” In my opinion, the I Line would serve this function well.

If the Twin Cities does want to become the bus rapid transit capital of North America, the I Line has the potential to prove it. The entire Twin Cities, especially in dense areas, needs more love from public transit. Even the smallest of changes can be a start.

About Richie Song

Pronouns: he/him

Richie is a resident of Brooklyn Park, an advocate for transit and the developments of better cities.