The Hilton Home2 Suites hotel in Eagan hasn’t opened yet, but William Morrissey can picture how his staff will introduce guests to the nearby Red Line bus rapid transit route: Are they here for leisure? Are they planning to stop by the Mall of America? Do they want to avoid traffic? Take the Red Line.
Morrissey is one of several business owners who considered proximity to the Red Line when deciding where to build. Hotels, restaurants, a yoga studio, and dozens of other new business and redevelopment projects have sprung up along the Red Line, which runs along Cedar Avenue from the Mall of America to Apple Valley.
The line debuted in 2013 and is the first of several rapid bus lines planned across the metro. Other communities are monitoring its progress and impact on the local economy.
Since 2010, companies have invested about $273 million in redevelopment and new development projects within a half-mile of the Red Line, according to a Dakota County study presented this week. County officials found that 38 projects have cropped up around bus rapid transit stations since planning for the route began, most of them clustered near County Road 42 in Apple Valley and Hwy. 13 in Eagan. Two expensive projects — a large housing development and an outlet mall — account for more than two-thirds of that investment total.
There’s no proof the bus line helped spur the growth, much of which occurred as the economy was bouncing back from the recession. And ridership on the line has been lower than projected.
But city officials said the transitway did factor into some developers’ decisions, including the owners of Twin Cities Premium Outlets. That mall opened last year next to the Red Line’s Cedar Grove station in Eagan.
“It is not a magic bullet,” Eagan Community Development Director Jon Hohenstein said of the rapid busway. “But certainly some of the things that are happening in Cedar Grove were attracted there, at least in part, by that.”
Buses vs. light rail
The Metropolitan Council did a similar review last year for the Green Line light-rail route, which goes from Minneapolis to St. Paul. It found 121 projects totaling $2.5 billion in investment occurred along the line over the past five years.
It’s difficult to determine how bus rapid transit stacks up against light rail when it comes to job generation and economic development, officials said.
“It’s not apples to apples, and every transitway is a different situation,” said Kristine Elwood, Dakota County’s transit programs manager. But she was optimistic about Dakota County’s Red Line study.
“It’s interesting to see the variety of changes and just the area improving,” Elwood said. “I think it’s good news.”
People have questioned whether bus rapid transit will generate the same economic growth as light rail or streetcars, Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck said. That’s partly because busways feel less permanent, he said.
Rapid busways have been marketed as “light rail on wheels” — a cheaper option where buses stop at platforms along the road and operate with the predictability of rail.
Officials need to make sure that developers understand how bus rapid transit differs from average bus lines and that it is permanent infrastructure, Duininck said.
Cities prepare for growth
When the A Line bus rapid transit route starts running on Snelling Avenue next year, Roseville and Falcon Heights officials hope to see the boost that Eagan and Apple Valley have experienced.
Har Mar Mall in Roseville, which has “struggled for identity for a number of decades,” could see more customers with the new line, Community Development Director Paul Bilotta said.
Cities that want to capitalize on bus rapid transit lines need to be strategic as they plan around stations, Duininck said. For example, they could increase density and try to create a workforce hub around one site and focus on building up housing around another, he said. And while the half-mile around a station is critical, Duininck said cities need to look beyond that and plan safe connections — with sidewalks and streetlights — for people to get to transit stations.
The Met Council wants more density and walkability, Lakeville Community and Economic Development Director David Olson said, and “all of that will be taken into account. But at the end of the day, the decision is going to be made as to what is in the best interest of the city of Lakeville for the land use and development along that corridor.”
Lakeville and Burnsville will soon start planning for development around the Orange Line bus rapid transit route that will run on Interstate 35W. Burnsville is waiting to hear where stations will be located, then will use the line to attract developers, Community Development Director Jenni Faulkner said. “We certainly would incorporate it into our marketing materials,” she said. “It’s an asset to the development site.”