Several times a day, dozens of people lugging suitcases and carrying pillows or blankets arrive or depart from a secluded parking lot near downtown Minneapolis that Megabus uses for its makeshift terminal.
Drawn by the low-cost bus rides to Madison, Wis., and Chicago, they’re willing to put up with the no-frills option even though they’re sometimes left to the elements at the lot, which only offers two port-a-potties.
“I was standing outside for an hour in the cold,” said Amanda Kliora, a Bethel University student recently waiting for a Chicago-bound Megabus.
But with nowhere to seek shelter on cold or rainy days, some riders hang out in nearby restaurants, often using bathrooms, storing their bags and sometimes littering and loitering.
Spurred by complaints from those businesses, the city is now asking Megabus to formalize its use of the city-owned lot with a permit or find a new location.
“It’s not, in our estimation, a lawful use without going through certain approvals,” said Steve Poor, the city’s zoning administration and enforcement manager.
Megabus, which is based in New Jersey, doesn’t provide indoor facilities to its customers, a policy that allows their fares to stay low.
“We don’t have any brick-or-mortar [facilities]. … That’s part of the way we can save costs and pass those savings off to our customers,” said Mike Alvich, vice president of marketing and public relations for Megabus.com/Coach USA.
The cost of cheap travel
Abi Gundy, a Bethel student who was waiting with Kliora, said those inexpensive rates make the Megabus well worth it, even if no shelter is provided.
“It’s worth what we pay for,” she said. “It’s not the nicest but it works because it’s cheap.”
But while Gundy and Kliora have in the past braved the cold, other customers have sought shelter in nearby businesses.
Roger Kubicki, who owns Sanctuary Restaurant near the lot, said Megabus customers often come into his restaurant to escape the winter cold or use his facilities without any intention of buying anything.
“If you’re running a fine dining restaurant, it’s not too cool to have people sitting in the front with their bags,” he said.
Kubicki said he doesn’t blame Megabus customers for seeking shelter that isn’t provided to them, as his Washington Avenue S. business is among the few near the lot.
“By and large, it’s a good group of folks,” he said. “But they have needs, and I don’t think their [Megabus’] business model satisfies those needs.”
Seeking a solution
The city investigated the location and labeled Megabus’ use of it as a “bus turnaround.” This requires Megabus to either apply for a conditional-use permit, which could require them to provide adequate facilities or find a new location to operate.
“Bus turnaround” isn’t clearly defined in the city’s code of ordinances, however, which led Megabus representatives to appeal the decision. Now, the city and Megabus are working together to find a suitable solution. In the meantime, the bus line is allowed to use the lot.
“We’re trying to resolve the issue in a way that is acceptable to the city and doesn’t push out Megabus,” Poor said.
Alvich said the company is always open to feedback from the cities it operates in. Until a resolution is found, the company is sending its buses an hour earlier to provide customers shelter inside.
Brian Arola is a University of Minnesota student on assignment to the Star Tribune.