The state's first rapid busway is off to a halting start, with riders and fares lagging behind forecasts.
The Red Line, which debuted in 2013 with the promise of speedier commutes for south metro residents, is the Metropolitan Council's first big bet on bus rapid transit (BRT). So far, though, the $112 million gamble has been slow to pay off.
Meanwhile, the council is studying a dozen more potential BRT routes and plans to roll out two lines in the next two years, at a total cost of $60 million. The next one, the A Line along Snelling Avenue, is scheduled to begin operating in late 2015.
Transit officials say they are still working out kinks in the inaugural line, which opened in June 2013, and hope to kick-start ridership by fixing a time-consuming detour into Eagan and a delay at the Mall of America's transit hub. They say the Red Line's rocky beginning also provides lessons for the numerous BRT projects planned across the Twin Cities.
"We all knew it would be a slow start," Dakota County Commissioner Paul Krause said. "You just don't build it and say, 'They'll come.' "
Ridership on the Red Line did not hit its first-year target of 975 daily rides until August. This year, cash from fares was about three-quarters of what officials had hoped, and people took 16,283 fewer rides than expected, according to Met Council data through October. The regional Counties Transit Improvement Board, which uses local taxes to help fund such projects, cut its estimate of Red Line fare revenue from $284,425 in 2014 to $209,152 next year.
Normally it takes a year to establish ridership, according to Dennis Hinebaugh, director of the National BRT Institute. When a line is working well, it will draw a diverse group of riders, he said, including people with higher incomes who are choosing transit over their vehicle.
For Yazmin Fakir, transit is the only option. She walks half an hour every weekday to get from her home to the Red Line's bus stop and said there needs to be a better system to connect riders to the BRT line.
Accounting for low fares
The Red Line BRT is a limited-stop express bus connecting Apple Valley with the Mall of America. According to its schedule, the 10-mile trip is supposed to take 23 minutes, even during the peak of rush hour.
The Red Line is one many BRT lines that have popped up around the country. Many of them are modeled after the popular TransMilenio BRT in Bogota, Colombia, which carries nearly 2 million people a day. The rapid bus lines are supposed to shave time off riders' trips and provide a less expensive alternative to rail, but they have not been as widely embraced by some U.S. riders.
The Green and Blue light rail (LRT) lines in Minneapolis and St. Paul exceeded ridership predictions from the start, according to Met Council data, while the Red Line has struggled.
But comparing ridership and fares of LRT and BRT can be deceiving, transit officials said. "It's not apples to apples," Dakota County Transit Manager Kristine Elwood said.
When the Blue Line train began operations, buses on the same route were canceled, and everyone was funneled on to rail, Elwood said. Similarly, some bus service along the Green Line was trimmed, and other routes were modified to feed more travelers to light rail.
The Red Line, in contrast, has to share the road with the Cedar Avenue express bus, which also caters to commuters.
Transit planners offered several reasons why the rapid buses have failed to live up to expectations. There's a "romance of rail," but an uncertainty about buses, said Arlene McCarthy, the Met Council's metropolitan transportation services director. And the Red Line carries a lot of people who are transferring to or from other lines, which splits up fare revenue, she said.
In addition, last year's severe winter caused a major dip in rides and fares. Discounted passes can also lead to lower fare collections than predicted, Hinebaugh said.
The ability to go through the back or front bus door also allows people to sneak on, Red Line riders said. Metro Transit police monitor the buses, but riders say they are a rare sight.
Sarah DuBois, a 14-year-old who rides the line almost daily, said her friend has stealthily slipped on the bus before.
"It's pretty easy," DuBois said.
Still, farebox revenue matters less than the number of riders, Dakota County Commissioner Tom Egan said.
"Every passenger that you have on board the vehicle is one less vehicle on Cedar Avenue causing congestion. And that was our main objective," Egan said.
Egan said he used to drive to work — against rush-hour traffic — on Cedar Avenue, which carries more than 100,000 vehicles on weekdays. "I used to say, 'But for the grace of God, I might be going in the opposite direction,' " he said.
Transit officials knew they had to do something to reduce congestion in the south metro area. But the population was too small to support a light rail line, which was estimated to cost $650 million. Instead, commissioners embraced bus rapid transit as a cheaper "light rail-on-wheels."
Light rail is sexy, Krause said, "but it'll never pay for itself."
Met Council member Steven Chavez doesn't expect the Red Line to pay for itself either, but argues that transit serves bigger purposes than just returning farebox revenue.
The nation's first bus rapid transit lines were built about a decade ago and cities are now seeing their impact, Hinebaugh said.
In Cleveland, $5 billion in real estate development has occurred within a quarter-mile of the Euclid Avenue corridor since a bus rapid transitway opened there in 2008, according to the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.
The key is to create a high-quality, reliable line that appears permanent so businesses know this is not another bus route that will come and go, Hinebaugh said.
With sleek new bus stations and expensive road alterations, the Red Line gives the impression that it's here to stay. At the Cedar Grove transit stop in Eagan, the city is already seeing changes. In August, Twin Cities Premium Outlets opened nearby. About 200 shoppers and employees ride the Red Line daily, said Jon Hohenstein, Eagan's community development director.
A mixed-use apartment complex, hotel and townhouse project have also emerged by the transit stop, he said.
While Cedar Grove is not urban, he said, "it's the least suburban development in Eagan."
With bus rapid transit set to expand in the Twin Cities, other communities could see similar evolutions. The A Line along Snelling Avenue will be the next to open, in late 2015. Busways connecting Burnsville and Brooklyn Center to downtown Minneapolis, and downtown St. Paul to the airport and Mall of America are scheduled next.
Despite the growth around Cedar Grove, officials called the station itself a major roadblock. It detours riders past stores, homes and an elementary school, adding 10 minutes to a round trip. Construction of a $13 million fix that will move the station to the middle of Cedar Avenue is expected to start in 2015. The Met Council estimates the repair will draw another 40,000 riders annually.
At the Mall of America, a new entrance for buses will be added in late 2015, shaving two to four minutes off Red Line trips, Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla said. The improvements would shorten ride time and could reduce the five buses needed to three or four, saving taxpayers money, Egan said.
"It's just trying to squeeze the nickel as far as we can," he said.