A Metro Transit Bus Rapid Transit bus on a St. Paul street.

Making Riverview Truly Regional

Summary: Let’s get regional BRT connecting the far East Metro single-seat to the Mall of America, leaving time to develop express rail off West Seventh to complete the “Transit Triangle.” This would more conveniently connect important cultural landmarks and destinations via fiscally affordable, efficient public transit and improve the Twin Cities’ density.

On February 29, 2024, Ramsey County at long last released three Riverview transit options for public comment in regard to the transit corridor located at West Seventh Street between downtown St. Paul, the MSP Airport and the Mall of America. Two of these plans propose a “modern streetcar” solution between Xcel Energy Center and Historic Fort Snelling — one would run down the middle, the other next to parking partway. Both would average 15 mph, which is only slightly slower than the current Route 54 bus

The third alternative, nicknamed “Best Bus” and officially known as BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), was developed at the request of the Riverview Project Policy Advisory Committee (PAC), established by the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority. This PAC consists of elected and agency reps from organizations such as the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and the St. Paul Mayor’s office. The PAC’s proposed BRT option would provide an alternative to the streetcar options. BRT is similar to standard city buses, except they provide service 25% faster due to enhancements such as traffic signal priority and off-board fare payments.

Image: Metro Transit, with labels added by Joe Landsberger.

When comparing the BRT with the streetcar alternatives, it is obvious that BRT performs better. It causes less disruption during construction, less ongoing conflict with vehicular traffic, preserves hundreds of on-street parking places and trees, avoids the need for a new bridge — and costs at least $1.5 billion less to build (this is after subtracting the street rebuild, some of which has to be done whatever transit option is chosen). Moreover, BRT costs $16 million less per year to operate.

In contrast, the only perceived advantages to the streetcar alternatives are potentially higher ridership, real estate investment and a $1 billion federal funding match — which would be several times the federal match for a BRT option. 

The savings to taxpayers if BRT is chosen could be as much as $800 million in construction and $16 million in annual operating cost. 

Equally, if not more important, the BRT option for Riverview Corridor presents an opportunity not possible with the streetcar options: single-seat BRT service all the way from Woodbury or Maplewood to the Mall of America. This could happen by extending Gold and Purple Line runs — currently planned to terminate downtown — along West Seventh to the airport and the Mall of America. With one stroke and at low cost, this will make the Gold, Purple and Riverview projects into one truly regional asset.

Gold, Purple and Riverview “Best Bus” BRT, for all practical purposes, could use identical vehicles, platforms and station information software. So why not combine them, creating a single-seat suburb-downtown-suburb route much like the D Line in Hennepin County, and the future G and H BRT lines in the East Metro? For that matter, there could even be single-seat Riverview-G (Rice Street/West Seventh) or Riverview-H (Maryland/West Seventh) service at some points of the day if demand warrants it in the future.

Such options could turn Riverview from a single short streetcar line into the key component of a real East Metro transit network. The Riverview project could be just the beginning.

‘Best Bus’ BRT Sets Stage for Rail

Over the past 14 years, I have supported dedicated right-of-way rail through my participation in various public engagement processes and by drawing on several affiliations over 30 years. I was an appointed member of the Transit Vision Task Force established jointly by Mayor Norm Coleman and the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners, with leadership from Minnesota House member Alice Hausman, which operated in the late 1990s and recommended the Blue, Green and Riverview lines as a “transit triangle.” Currently, I am an appointed member of the Riverview Station Area Planning Task Force, established by the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority.

Given my background, one of the projects I supported was rail for Riverview providing it could run completely on dedicated right-of-way. What I had previously hoped for was that what are now the Gold and Purple would also be rail, and thus compatible and connectible. Instead, Ramsey and Washington counties chose BRT for both.

Now, combining Gold, Purple and Riverview into one BRT service would produce a drastic improvement in frequency. 

Running into downtown St. Paul, both Purple and Gold lines would operate at 15-minute all-day frequencies, arriving at downtown stations 7.5 minutes apart even in mixed traffic, and continuing on West Seventh at that frequency to MSP and Mall of America, stopping at a current 54 bus stops. With Gold Line at 22 mph on its own guideway, it will take just 26 minutes from Woodbury to the Xcel Center, 46 minutes single-seat from Woodbury to MSP Terminal 1 and 35 minutes from Sunray to Terminal 1 — all acceptable commute times for East Side workers and 20 minutes faster than current local bus service.

A Line Bus Rapid Transit in Highland Park. Photo: Mathews Hollinshead.

A combined Purple/Riverview run at 15 mph average speed on White Bear Avenue would take 57 minutes from Maplewood Mall to MSP Terminal 1. It would take 51 minutes using a partially dedicated Bruce Vento Trail alignment. These times would be faster than both the streetcar options (which would require a downtown transfer) and the current 54 bus (which does not have prepay).

With this BRT infrastructure in mind, now consider a future express rail connection between downtown St. Paul, the airport and the Mall of America using the Shepard Road median near downtown and the abandoned Canadian Pacific Rail Spur farther west. Such an express could host transfers from four East Metro BRT lines — Gold, Purple, G and H — for those wanting to go nonstop to the airport or the Mall of America. And who knows, it might host corporate business travelers from Securian, Ecolab or even 3M (starting on the Gold Line). This future express rail connection could even host trains from the Capitol all the way to the airport and the Mall of America, greatly cementing connection and accessibility to important landmarks and cultural centers in the Twin Cities. If this transit option is available, Greater Minnesota legislators might consider flying instead of what is now their only option: frequent, long drives to and from their districts.

Let’s get regional BRT connecting the far East Metro single-seat to the Mall of America, leaving ample time to develop express rail — off West Seventh — completing the “Transit Triangle” (Green, Blue and Riverview) first proposed by a city/county joint task force in 1998.

Twin Cities Sprawl Means Transit Challenges

I come by this idea as a member of Citizen Advocates for Regional Transit (CART), so let’s define that. The key word is regional.

The Twin Cities metro, unlike many peer metros, is unconstrained by mountains, an ocean or a great lake. That means no geographic barriers limit its ability to spread out. That, in turn, means regional transit is a big challenge, because density is at the core but scarce elsewhere, and what we call transitways — expensive lines that run on exclusive rights-of-way like the Green, Blue and Gold — require density to justify their cost. Without density, ridership is unlikely to match what the size of the investment requires. 

Along the Riverview Corridor there are sites that could provide density for a future transitway between downtown, the airport and the Mall of America. The problem is the downtown end of West Seventh Street (also known as Fort Road) is too narrow for dedicated transit right-of-way. The 1998 city/county task force on which I served did report out a recommendation for a so-called “transit triangle,” implying that all three legs — what are now Blue and Green lines, plus Riverview — would be major transitways that are regional in service and significance, requiring dedicated right-of-way.

A study by Perkins & Will, along with state, county and city public works has recommended against dedicated lanes for rail options because the narrowness of West Seventh near downtown could create too much traffic congestion and remove too much on-street parking near downtown. Indeed, any rail options on West Seventh would have to run in mixed traffic for substantial distances. A single delivery truck could therefore block the train anywhere within those segments. This would compromise the line’s ability to build ridership to the level required to justify its high cost. 

All along West Seventh are thriving local small businesses, something old legacy cities such as St. Paul should protect and support. Much of what offers the possibility of increased density is at the western end of the corridor — not near downtown, as shown on the above map.

Also in the background of these challenges is the impending resurfacing of West Seventh — or Highway 5, as its owner, MnDOT, defines it — as well as the much bigger issue of whether this road should be entirely rebuilt rather than just resurfaced. This is a project that could cost $200 million to $300 million all by itself, a large figure made much more possible by leveraging a giant rail transit component over a much cheaper BRT option. In a whole different world, if the Twin Cities had a subway, the way to rebuild West Seventh would be a “cut-and-cover” subway line, but subways have not been proposed here since 1974 when a DFL legislature voted down something called “A Family of Vehicles” that proposed a regional subway. 

Ensuring Equity in Transportation Options

Despite the fear and problems related to crime, I still identify as what I have been since I went to college in New York in the 1960s — a strong supporter of high-speed regional rail transit on its own right-of-way. Part of this is an equity issue. Personal vehicles cost households an average of $11,000 per year, according to the American Automobile Association (known broadly as AAA). Moreover, providing for parking isn’t cheap. Surface parking lots cost approximately $10,000, and a ramp or underground parking runs to $30,000 or even more. Those costs get built into rents and real estate sales prices, depriving the region of desperately needed affordable housing and so-called “missing middle” (middle-class) housing.

Anyone who has ridden  our current A, C, D, Red and Orange BRT lines knows what an advantage it is to be on a bus where boarding passengers have already paid, where drivers can lengthen an approaching traffic signal’s green to get through busy intersections to the next stop rather than have to stop twice — once  for a red light and once to disembark or board passengers — where stops are half a mile apart rather than every other block, and the “next bus” wait time is digitally announced on a curbside kiosk screen so you can time your adjacent business to the time the bus actually will arrive. 

Pandemic problems notwithstanding, St. Paul still has a downtown and will always be the state capital, meaning that fast rail to the airport and the Mall of America will be a selling point in the future, especially if residential repopulation goals for downtown are met in the future.

As with Gold, Purple and Riverview BRT, a future rail along Shephard Road and the CP Rail spur would give connection to both Green and Blue lines, but faster than BRT. 

Mathews Hollinshead

About Mathews Hollinshead

Pronouns: he/him

Mathews has been focused on transit advocacy in the Twin Cities for three decades and served as a transit modal representative on the Met Council’s Transportation Advisory Board for six years. He lives in St. Paul within a few minutes’ walk of almost every need. He is a co-founder of Citizen Advocates for Regional Transit.