Blue Line Extension: How’s Metro Transit?

Some people and transit riders may feel apprehensive to use Metro Transit, especially their light rail lines in relation to elevated levels of crime, uncertainties with public safety, changing commuting patterns and reduced service post-pandemic. The fear of the unknown may keep them from boarding the train and using its station platforms or their bus services. The Blue Line turns 20 this month after carrying over 175 million passengers and counting as Metro Transit plans to expand service to Brooklyn Park. 

The METRO Blue Line light rail transit (LRT) extension project will extend the existing Blue Line northwest by 13.4 miles from downtown Minneapolis to the communities of North Minneapolis, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park, but we won’t see trains running until at least 2030. This upcoming investment will significantly upgrade transit access in the northwest metro, adding to the existing network of local, express and arterial bus rapid transit (aBRT) services to and from downtown Minneapolis and beyond.

In light of the upcoming project, I wanted to see what north suburban transit currently looks like without it. I rode Route 722 and the METRO D Line aBRT to downtown Minneapolis from Brooklyn Park. Once downtown, I took the Blue Line and Route 21 to the Midtown Global Market to see what it’s like on the train.

Onward to Downtown Minneapolis

I took this first exploratory trip in late May. After a short bike ride, I reached a 722 bus stop and made my way to Brooklyn Center Transit Center (BCTC). The 722 is reliable, despite its lackluster weekday frequencies of limited hourly service in Brooklyn Park or 30 minute frequencies in Brooklyn Center. My 22-minute ride on the 722 was more than double the length of the same journey on my preferred bus route, the 723, which has 30 minute frequencies on weekdays and a more direct route to BCTC. Even so, this modest service beats no service at all.

Left, a traditional Metro Transit bus I was aboard | Right, a typical Metro Transit bus rapid transit (BRT) bus. Author photo.

After a quick and easy transfer to the D Line at BCTC, I boarded an older, slightly more comfortable traditional Metro Transit articulated bus. Most BRT lines use newer versions of these articulated buses, with additional doors, wide aisles, and a sleeker and distinctly colorful design.

As I headed towards downtown Minneapolis, the D Line went off of its usual route due to construction on Osseo Road. This detour didn’t affect the trip time of about 32 minutes. As the bus zipped past several D Line stations, I noticed that some of them had excess trash lying around and needed some extra love and care. My only other complaint about the D Line is that it’s not as smooth or fast as light rail and can more easily get caught up in traffic. These haven’t stopped the D Line from being the busiest bus route in Minnesota, and it sure did quickly fill up stop after stop as the bus made its way to my stop, 8th Street and Nicollet Station

A Need for the Blue Line Extension and Anti-Displacement

This entire trip to downtown Minneapolis took about an hour. That isn’t prohibitively long, but it also isn’t ideal, especially for trips outside of limited rush-hour express services. From BCTC, the less than 32-minute trip is fair. Trip times from any further north than Brooklyn Center become daunting for most people, myself included. Luckily, I can take the express bus back home on weekdays in the afternoon. Otherwise, the trip back on the D Line and 722 (or 723) would take another hour, excluding my last-mile bike ride.

The Blue Line extension will cut transit travel times by more than half in most cases. The extension could make trips just as fast as driving, and possibly even faster in some cases. While we’re still about six years out from more certain travel times on the Blue Line extension, this light rail service is going to be a real-time saver. Not only will the line provide a reliable and efficient way to get to work and the airport, it will connect with bustling cultural hubs and essential needs, along with many other Twin Cities destinations.

A number of anti-displacement efforts seek to ensure prosperity for residents and businesses at every stage of the light rail project, even after construction wraps up. The soon-to-be-published adaptive draft Anti-Displacement Coordinated Action Plan will “help navigate the human side of building a light rail line.” This plan will include key points like relocation, right-of-way acquisition, infrastructure improvements, business support, community ownership/land subsidy, cultural placemaking and station architecture, among other points. 

The recently established Anti-Displacement Community Prosperity Program received $10 million in re-appropriated funds by this year’s Minnesota Legislature. This comes from the $50 million allocated for the Blue Line’s capital by the 2023 Minnesota legislative session. This program creates a community-led board with local government representation that reflects the makeup of the anti-displacement workgroup. This workgroup will distribute funding to advance recommendations with affordable housing, small business support, preserving cultural heritage, infrastructure improvements, existing residents staying in place, economic vitality and more. They first met two weeks ago.

Strong public transit investments, like the Blue Line extension, are the path forward toward a more climate-driven future, reducing our dependence on cars and advancing equity while providing investment into our communities. 

Aboard the Blue Line

A bright yellow Paid Fare Zone sign at the Nicollet Mall light rail station. It’s one of many installed earlier this year near the entrances of light rail stations to remind riders about paying for their fare. Author photo.

This journey wasn’t quite over yet. I rode on the Blue Line and 21 bus line to the Midtown Global Market. I could have continued on the D Line, which conveniently stops at the Chicago-Lake Transit Center just outside of the Midtown Global Market. For the sake of my research, I took the Blue Line anyway.

In downtown Minneapolis, I parked my bike and grabbed a bite to eat, then narrowly missed the next Blue Line train at the Nicollet Mall light rail station. Had I missed that train, I would have needed to wait 15 minutes, a decent but generally unimpressive frequency for rapid transit. Frequencies should see improvements this August, with Blue and Green Line trains arriving every 12 minutes (during most service hours). It’s a great step forward from their current 15-minute headways, but I would prefer 10-minute frequencies or better.

A Loon Mural at 921 10th Ave. S. taken from inside a Blue Line train, near U.S. Bank Stadium. Author photo 

On the Blue Line, a swift operator swap had occurred at the Franklin Avenue station as we continued to smoothly zip past traffic on Hiawatha Avenue. I’m no stranger to issues that affect light rail in the Twin Cities, but this ride on the Blue Line was uneventful. I saw some litter left on the train, but no other issues.

That’s not always the case. On a different journey on the Blue Line in early June, as I was disembarking from the train, I witnessed open drug use by two individuals in one of the shelters at the Nicollet Mall station. There weren’t any officers on the platform at the time, so I chose to use the Metro Transit Text for Safety to report the illegal activity (It’s a convenient and discreet alternative to calling 911). A dispatcher immediately responded to my report and alerted transit police to the situation.

While some of the Nicollet Mall station shelters reeked of urine and were visibly filthy, I never felt unsafe on any light rail platforms or witnessed any problems in the train. This incident wasn’t pleasant, but it won’t discourage me and shouldn’t discourage anyone else from utilizing Metro Transit. There is, however, more work to be done, and not just by Metro Transit.

A “Your Role as a Rider” sign, also installed earlier this year near the entrances of every Metro Transit light rail station to remind riders about the code of conduct. This one’s located at the 46th Street light rail station. Author photo.

Introduced in late February of this year, Transit Rider Investment Program (TRIP) Agents ride on METRO Lines in royal blue jackets to inspect fares and administer administrative citations for fare non-payment, educate riders about “Your Role As a Rider” by outlining the Metro Transit code of conduct, provide information about routes and schedules, share information about social services and administer first aid and Narcan when necessary. This comes as Metro Transit continues to improve the rider experience for the entire system as part of the Safety & Security Action Plan, which I see working and broadly effective. Crime continues to decline, Metro Transit security presence and enforcement continues to increase, infrastructure continues to be enhanced, ridership is rising and the overall experience is improving.

These TRIP Agents and other various Metro Transit personnel were not on board my train cars during both the late May and early June journeys, and Metro Transit recently sought to fill more full-time TRIP Agent positions. Nevertheless, in mid-June, several TRIP Agents were aboard my train to downtown Minneapolis and conducted a fare check for every passenger. The agents declared that any non-paying riders would be given an administrative citation and had to get off at the next stop. There are also usually personnel present at various light rail station platforms. 

Disembarking from a METRO Blue Line train at the Lake Street/Midtown light rail station. Author photo.

On my journey in late May, I disembarked from the train at the busy and frequently headlined Lake Street/Midtown light rail station for high-profile occurrences. In part because of the security stationed at the station, I felt safe there, but saw the clear signs of aging at the station. That includes its need for constant maintenance on its escalators, elevators and other damaged infrastructure. 

Lake Street/Midtown will see a total renovation as soon as 2025 as part of the Hi-Lake project — complementing under-construction improvements to the Hiawatha-Lake intersection. We can expect more projects like this as Metro Transit continues to rebuild the entire Blue Line’s track and signal work, while they celebrated 20 years of the Blue Line (and 10 years of the Green Line) on Tuesday, June 18 at Target Field station.

A blurry photo of a damaged set of doors at the ground floor of the northern tower at Lake Street/Midtown station. Author photo.

Transferring onto the 21 from the Blue Line should have been easy, but right as I exited from the doors of the Lake Street/Midtown station, the 21 bus went right on by. Buses often do this when they’re overcrowded or simply don’t see coming riders, which is cold comfort to the ones left stranded on the sidewalk. Not the case here: construction on Lake Street was the culprit. Metro Transit’s website marked the bus stop as closed, though it was in fact still operating at a temporary location. I wasn’t the only one confused about this situation, but my fellow riders and I managed to figure it out and went down to the next stop.

General location of the moved Route 21 bus stop as of late May 2024, near Lake Street/Midtown Station, looking east. Author photo.

I made a beeline for the next 21 bus. Relatively slow and with minimal wiggle room, the line will soon be largely replaced with the B Line aBRT in June 2025. With over half of the 11-mile long corridor using a dedicated bus lane, the B Line promises improvements to speed, reliability, frequency and comfort.

After spending time in the Midtown Global Market, I headed out for the nearby D Line station for a pleasant trip back to downtown Minneapolis until I was ready to head back home on the express bus.

Metro Transit and the Blue Line Extension Is Great

Overall, Metro Transit is an enjoyable, useful and generally reliable way to get around. I don’t often (and can’t always) take public transit. I’m sure many of you reading this might not either. Go out and find the right time to ride on your local bus or train! After all, public transit is there for all of us.

Metro Transit buses and trains cannot take me everywhere I need or want to go, especially east-west in the northwest suburbs. It especially can be challenging to ride the bus around here with often limited and lengthy travel times on local services. While we have express bus services for downtown commuters, it doesn’t provide all-day and frequent service or growth of cities we would see with light rail. The northwest suburbs have historically been underserved by public transit, especially in communities that need it the most.

The Blue Line extension transit project seeks to remediate and further invest into the northwest metro area for the benefit of all, not just for commuters or attendees of downtown sports games. As 2030 draws closer, we need to continue to support the extension and its anti-displacement measures so everyone in the Twin Cities can benefit. I can’t wait to see you in 2030, Blue Line extension.

About Richie Song

Pronouns: he/him

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