Thanks to a gigantic windfall, the Twin Cities area is in line to get bus rapid transit, or BRT. But many residents don't know what it is or how it will work, and full-fledged service could be years away.
Bus rapid transit could be the next big thing in Twin Cities' transit.
But it's not clear that what commuters will get -- for years to come -- is what they're being promised. And that's creating a danger of a public relations fiasco.
The darling of fiscal conservatives, as far as transit projects go, BRT costs less than half as much as light rail yet provides similar service, minus the track and with more route flexibility. It's also getting a boost from a huge federal windfall, for which dozens of metro areas competed.
Commuters in the southern suburbs are being promised the new service by the end of this year. Four of the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority's buses are even shrink-wrapped to tout the project, with a swoosh depicting the route and big orange letters that boast, "Arriving Soon!"
Count Shari Bellows among the perplexed about just what is coming their way.
"I'm real vague on it," the express bus commuter from Lakeville admits. "Are we going to get a [light-rail] train down here? Or just express buses? Or a special lane just for buses? No cars allowed? But then there are all those stoplights on Cedar. It's very confusing. We got a flier on our windshields one day, but it was raining and it got all soggy."
Even as some transit officials claim BRT is almost here, an expert with Metro Transit, which runs the Hiawatha light-rail line and the city buses, recently told a conference hall full of transit officials, "They won't have BRT til 2012." Dakota County, which is building the line, agrees.
And despite a flurry of construction on Interstate 35W aimed at hastening commutes, including new shoulder lanes for new express buses, the planned BRT line out of Lakeville along that corridor is even further in the future.
The Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, the agency most aggressively claiming that BRT is almost here, says its goal is to build anticipation for the service. Advertising its launch this year is appropriate, said Robin Selvig, customer service manager, because there will be new stations and new express service from Lakeville -- an initial form of bus rapid transit.
But piece-by-piece implementation carries risks, said Victoria Perk, senior research associate with the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute in Tampa, Fla., which has advised local officials on the rollout.
"It's something to be concerned about," she said. "When you hear the success stories of BRT, it has a lot to do with identity, with branding, with something that is 'set apart' from the overall system -- a separate service. But realistically, funding is often limited so when you start you don't have all those features. So what do you do -- just wait?"
A new way to travel
Bus rapid transit is inherently confusing because it's new.
Models of the concept, often touted as light rail on rubber wheels, exist around the nation and world. The only such system in Minnesota is at the U, where there are stretches where buses run in their own lanes. It's not a concept that commuters are familiar with, and because of its potential for flexible routes it's not as easy to grasp as light rail.
The ultimate goal on both Cedar Avenue, a main thoroughfare heading into the cities, and 35W is a combination of buses that run like trains -- running station to station with departures every 10 or 15 minutes -- and express buses during commutes. The general idea is to remove buses from the normal flow of traffic, allowing them to whiz by. On Cedar, the buses will have dedicated shoulder lanes. On 35W, they will share high-occupancy toll lanes priced to keep traffic moving.
Thanks to $133 million of federal transportation money that flowed to Minnesota through an Urban Partnership Agreement and a $50 million local match, pieces of both BRT projects are happening sooner than expected. But that financial blessing is also a curse because it means that the BRT corridors will be implemented piece by piece, and commuters will have to wait years to see the whole picture.
But before BRT is heralded as the model for future transit projects, the currently confused public has to ride it -- and like it.
People who champion BRT, including Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell, know the long-term prospects for several BRT lines in the metro area will have a lot do with how the first two are perceived. If they are judged as failures, he says, "it's all over" for BRT.
So far, there is interest from the public, and people have a lot of questions.
"It is confusing" said Selvig, of the MVTA. "They get it but they don't exactly know when it's coming."
Full service years away
If all goes according to plan, Cedar will see "true" BRT service first, starting in 2012. Increasing capacity on the corridor, which already carries as many cars as 35W, has been Dakota County's top priority for years. Officials have cobbled together funding from 14 sources, pitching BRT and its virtues to anyone who would listen.
When the federal Urban Partnership Agreement money was doled out in the Twin Cities, the Cedar BRT got funding for its shiny new stations.
The Apple Valley station, with whiz-bang amenities, including a skyway, is already under construction at 155th Street and will open by the end of 2009. A new park-and-ride at 180th Street in Lakeville is on a similar timeline. Construction of the Cedar Grove station at Hwy. 13 will start in June and be finished in early 2010.
About that time, the county will rip up Cedar Avenue from 138th Street in Eagan on down through Lakeville, widening shoulders for buses to run on and adjusting intersections to smooth access and traffic flow. Once that construction is done in 2012, station-to-station service with buses designed to mimic light-rail cars will begin.
The new transit option won't necessarily cut travel time immediately, though it will pay off long term. It'll still take about 46 minutes to get from County Road 70 in Lakeville to downtown Minneapolis on BRT. Kristine Elwood, the Cedar project manager, said the idea is to increase capacity on Cedar without making congestion worse.
"If we do nothing, we really have a problem," Elwood said.
The first noticeable drop in congestion and commuting time will likely be noticed on 35W, where roadway improvements are happening before station construction and true BRT service won't be running until well after the BRT line on Cedar. Electronic signs will let commuters know how fast each lane is traveling by the end of this year. The displays will show time to downtown by car and by bus, and signs in advance of park-and-rides will let people know if the lots are full.
Coach buses will start running from the new Lakeville park-and-ride at Kenrick Avenue to downtown this fall. They'll have exclusive on-ramps to the freeway and will travel in high occupancy toll lanes, similar to those on I-394, priced to keep traffic moving at 55 miles per hour.
Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said:
"It's not implementation of the BRT concept in its totality. It's more like express bus service."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023