Seven months into the first year of service for Cedar Avenue bus rapid transit (BRT), the slow-to-reach, off-freeway station in Eagan has become a liability, and officials want to spend $14.6 million to build a fast stop in the freeway’s center median that would shave 10 minutes off the round trip.
The $112 million bus rapid transit line, known as the Red Line, opened in June, running between Apple Valley and the Mall of America. As the first demonstration of BRT in the Twin Cities, it promised a fast trip along the 11-mile corridor, but riders objected immediately to buses leaving the freeway at Diffley Avenue to get to Eagan’s Cedar Grove park-and-ride station at 4035 Nicols Road.
BRT is supposed to resemble light-rail on wheels, with quick stops at stations alongside the road.
But the trip from Cedar Avenue to the Cedar Grove station and back again is a slow 2 miles on local streets, and when the station location was chosen to promote an Eagan redevelopment district, it was understood that more direct access from the freeway would be needed later. Negative rider reaction has made fixing it an immediate priority.
Deric Selchow of Northfield is one rider who tried the new service but stopped taking the Red Line in part because of the delay at the Eagan station.
“It takes way too long to get from Apple Valley to the Mall of America. It should never leave the roadway,” he said. “That is not a rapid bus line anymore.’’
Selchow had hoped to take the Red Line from Apple Valley to connect with the Hiawatha light-rail line at the Mall of America to commute to downtown Minneapolis. But between the off-freeway stop in Eagan and poor connections between Red Line buses and light-rail trains, Selchow found “it’s not quite fast enough yet.’’
He is back to driving up Cedar to the 28th Street parking lot to catch the train. “If they fix that Eagan stop and if they synchronize their schedule with the Hiawatha line, I think it could work really, really well.’’
With future ridership in mind, Dakota County Commissioners voted recently to endorse the center median stop and to pursue funds to build it. It would be the second mid-freeway stop in the Twin Cities, built much like the first one at 46th Street on Interstate 35W in south Minneapolis.
Making a quick stop to take on and let off passengers without leaving Cedar will reduce the Red Line round trip from about 52 minutes to 42 minutes.
Speeding up the Eagan stop will eliminate the line’s one weakness, said Commissioner Tom Egan of Eagan. “I can only guess that if you reduce the round-trip times by 10 minutes, it will increase the ridership.”
Through the end of December, the Red Line provided 130,733 rides and reached average weekday ridership of 819. It has five more months to meet the first-year goal of 975 average weekday riders by June.
“Ridership has been solid. We are very happy with ridership,” Egan said. “It started out strong early last summer, dipped a little,” and has been growing, Egan said. “If it was less than 600 we would be deflated.”
For riders going to and from Eagan, the mid-freeway stop will connect to the existing park-and-ride station by an enclosed, climate-controlled walkway over the freeway. It will be a walk of about 300 feet.
The Metropolitan Council is expected to approve the plan this winter. Dakota County plans to begin immediately to design the stop while looking for funding from federal, state and regional sources. Construction would start in 2015 with the hope of an opening in early 2016.
Three-fourths of the bus line’s riders take the service as a through-trip between Apple Valley and the Mall of America. Metro Transit is not planning a ridership survey that would indicate where people are going when they ride the line until fall of 2015. But it’s clear from ridership tallies that the most boardings occur at the Mall of America and that some commuters may be using the all-day shuttle service.
Buses arrive frequently at each station, eliminating the need for schedules, but the station-to-station service isn’t as fast as existing express buses typically used by commuters.
“The morning and afternoon peaks have an equal ridership traveling in both directions,’’ county transit planner Kristine Elwood said. “We believe the majority of these riders are traveling to jobs with traditional start times.”
The existing Eagan station will remain in use as a park-and-ride anchor, Elwood said. BRT riders will park there to walk to the new freeway stop and Minnesota Valley Transit Authority’s local buses, and some freeway express buses will continue to serve passengers there, she said.