Hopping off a bus at the Minnesota State Fair’s new Transit Hub Sunday was pleasantly disorienting for many riders.
In previous years, they had been deposited along busy Como Avenue, where they immediately faced the dodgy prospect of crossing the chaotic thoroughfare to get to the fair.
Their new landing zone offers an expansive plaza to quietly gather their wits, study a fair map, plan their cheese curd strategy, slather on sunscreen and hitch up their strollers and wagons before entering the sweaty throng that loomed ahead.
“I’ll never drive again,” declared Chris Madison, who took a Park & Ride bus to the fair from Eden Prairie.
The Transit Hub at the Fairgrounds is part of a $17.5 million upgrade that officials hope will combine with the advent of the new Green Line light-rail line to boost the number of fairgoers who arrive by public transportation. In years past, about 43 percent of the 1.8 million people attending the fair took some form of mass transit.
Taking light rail to the fair is not a seamless proposition — riders must walk a short way to a Metro Transit bus stop after exiting at the Snelling Avenue station in St. Paul, and the bus shelter there is fairly spartan.
But Jerry Spearman, a State Fair staffer who takes two buses and light rail to the Fairgrounds from his West St. Paul home, is a believer. “This is how I get to work, I have no complaints,” he said.
Last year, Metro Transit provided 444,295 rides by bus to and from the fair, and it’s hoping to boost that number by 3 percent in 2014, in part due to the Green Line’s debut and the new Hub.
The Hub project came about after fair officials in recent years studied traffic patterns along Como Avenue, on the southern stretch of the Fairgrounds, knowing that some changes were in order to alleviate traffic and congestion, said spokeswoman Brienna Schuette.
“We looked at ways that people were getting off the bus, tens of thousands of people are crossing a busy city street,” she said. “You’re mixing cars, people, buses and in some cases livestock on Como Avenue.”
In addition, buses loaded with fairgoers waiting to enter Como Avenue often snaked down Snelling Avenue N., already clogged with cars. Now, buses access the new Transit Hub through the University of Minnesota Transitway, a dedicated roadway for buses and bicycles linking the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses.
Schuette said “a couple hundred” on-street parking spots were eliminated along Randall Avenue. to make way for the new Hub.
Bus travel is deeply ingrained at the fair, which partners with several transportation groups to offer 33 free Park & Ride shuttle bus lots and 20 Express Bus Service lots. That means 80 percent of the buses serving the fair will be routed through the new Hub.
The project also includes the new West End Market, a dining and entertainment complex that replaced the aging Heritage Square. Part of the overhaul included rescuing a swooping 1930s-era streetcar arch that reads “State Fair” from obscurity and installing it at the Hub, as well.
But not everyone is a fan of the changes that smoothed the way for the Hub.
The closure of the westernmost entrance on Commonwealth Avenue to ensure uninterrupted bus traffic to the Hub drew some criticism from neighbors in the nearby St. Anthony Park and University Grove areas. They claim a new pedestrian entrance off Buford Avenue is unsafe and confusing for area residents who want to walk to the fair.
Spokeswoman Schuette confirmed that officials have heard from some dissatisfied residents. “This is our first year of doing this, and we definitely expect to make some adjustments based on the feedback we’ve received,” she said.
Beyond the bus system and three free bike lots (although there’s no Nice Ride bike-sharing stations), other modes of transport are making their way to the fair in a grass-roots manner. This includes car-sharing options such as Uber, Lyft and Car2Go. Schuette says she’s heard anecdotally of Fairgoers using those options, but there’s no dedicated lot at the fair for car-sharing enthusiasts.
Star Tribune staff writer Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report.