Looking to mimic trains with buses

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 22, 2011 - 6:45 PM

Transit officials see ways to make buses run faster and fuller. But the biggest issue may be how to pay for the required changes.

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The Kenrick Road Park and Ride Transit Station in Lakeville had the highest rate of ridership growth among express bus routes run by Metro Transit.

To speed up commuting on some of the most congested metro roads, transit officials are considering a major makeover for stodgy city buses: Make them more like trains.

Sidewalk pay stations, fewer stops and easier boarding are among the possible amenities for buses on 11 major corridors in the Twin Cities.

The concept adapts the bus rapid transit (BRT) underway on Interstate 35W and borrows from systems in Los Angeles, Kansas City and elsewhere to cut travel time and attract more riders.

"I think it's a great idea to have a bus that doesn't stop at every block," said Rachel Harris, a city planner in Fridley. But "we'll find out just how far people are willing to walk if they want to have a little bit faster ride."

At $1 million to $6 million per mile, an urban corridor rapid bus system would be much cheaper than light rail to establish. But the Metropolitan Council, which oversees transit and has complained about budget cuts, would need to find new funding from federal, state or local government.

Transit officials hope to recommend some routes by early next year.

The "arterial" bus rapid transit features special low-slung buses to allow quick entry from multiple doors. Passengers would buy tickets at sidewalk kiosks, similar to ticketing for light rail, to avoid delays in paying on the bus.

Traffic signals could also be wired to prolong green lights as buses approach.

Speed is selling point

Travel times could drop an average 18 percent on the 11 corridors under consideration.

The biggest speed-up would be on Lake Street from just west of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, where a 48-minute commute could be slashed to 33 minutes.

A rapid bus route from the 46th Street BRT station at Interstate 35W in Minneapolis to Snelling and Rosedale could cut travel time by nearly the same margin. Other routes with substantial time savings could run along Interstate 494 from Eden Prairie to Mall of America and from Robbinsdale to downtown Minneapolis.

The faster service is expected to draw heavier ridership, allowing it to operate with a lower subsidy than regular buses and the same fares, said Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland.

Elsewhere, Los Angeles has a large network of rapid bus service, linked with light and heavy rail through Los Angeles County.

Kansas City is expanding a rapid bus system started in 2005. That year, Cleveland began building a bus rapid transit line as an alternative to a more expensive subway. The Cleveland BRT relies heavily on a dedicated traffic lane, a feature that increases costs. Twin Cities transit officials have no plans for dedicated lanes.

Funding uncertain

While costs of some systems can start at $1 million to $3 million per mile for new buses and other features, a system with more amenities can run to $6 million, said Charles Carlson, manager of transitway projects for Metro Transit.

That's less than the Cedar Avenue BRT under development -- which includes a major rebuilding of that highway -- and far less than the 11-mile, $957 million Central Corridor light-rail line.

But finding money won't be easy.

Metropolitan Council member Steve Elkins, chair of the agency's transportation committee, and transit advocate Dave Van Hattum say they doubt the new arterial BRT would qualify for special five-county, quarter-cent sales tax revenue earmarked mostly for expanding transit.

Some Republican legislators have pushed to use more of that revenue to run the bus system. But Van Hattum, a policy director for Transit for Livable Communities, said the money was to be used for light rail and large, regional highway BRTs with dedicated lanes or corridors.

"The logic being ... if we're not carving out projects that are going to be new, then we're just setting ourselves up for all that new money just going to back-fill cuts to the bus system."

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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