Once a week or so, Minneapolis resident Serafina Scheel hops aboard the Metro Transit A Line rapid bus when she feels like shopping in St. Paul.
The souped-up bus connects easily to the Green Line light rail, which has a stop near Scheel’s home in Prospect Park. Its frequency — a bus every 10 minutes during peak hours — means she “doesn’t have to worry whether the bus will show up,” Scheel said. “It feels as reliable as the train.”
Nearly three years after the $27 million A Line made its debut, Metro Transit has big plans to expand its rapid bus fleet — a strategy seen as both economical and politically palatable. It’s also popular with riders at a time when local bus ridership is down in the Twin Cities and nationwide.
A second rapid bus called the C Line, which will include Metro Transit’s first electric buses, is slated to begin passenger service later this year, serving north Minneapolis and the northern suburbs. And the Metropolitan Council will ask state lawmakers this session for funds to help build the $75 million D Line, which will largely replace the Route 5 local bus, the busiest transit thoroughfare in the state.
The council estimates it will take $400 million to $500 million from various sources to build out a system of 11 rapid bus lines.
In recent years, Republican lawmakers at the Capitol have looked askance at the regional planning body’s funding requests for transit, particularly light rail. But arterial rapid buses seem to be a mode that both parties support, at least for now.
“In general, I think arterial buses are a better buy for the money, more bang for the buck,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, the Republican lead on the House Transportation Finance and Policy Division. Torkelson, a farmer from Hanska, said he took the A Line last summer to the State Fair and was impressed.
What is a rapid bus?
Part of the challenge for transit planners is explaining, particularly to legislators from greater Minnesota, just how this bus is different from all the others.
“When we were engaging people about the A Line it was difficult to visualize what it was that we were talking about,” said Katie Roth, Metro Transit’s manager of arterial bus-rapid transit. “We relied a lot on renderings and what other cities were doing. Since the A Line has opened, we have this wonderful opportunity to point to it and say, ‘This is what we’re talking about.’ ”
Rapid buses mimic light rail in many respects. Passengers pay before they board, stations are heated and equipped with real-time schedule information with a bus arriving every 10 minutes during peak hours. The low-floor buses, raised curbs at stations, and wider doors permit boarding in the front and back, which speeds up travel time. The buses have signal priority at intersections to keep them moving to fewer stations that are located farther apart.
All told, A Line service between the 46th Street Blue Line light-rail station in Minneapolis and Rosedale mall is up to 25 percent faster than the Route 84 local bus, which has been substantially pared back. Last year, some 830,000 passengers took the rapid bus.
Once the A Line began service in June of 2016, ridership along the corridor climbed by a third.
“The ridership numbers, as well as what we’ve heard from riders about their satisfaction with the service, has been really encouraging,” Roth said.
But the challenge with arterial bus-rapid transit service is that it operates in traffic, and is subject to congestion and road construction. Plus, scaling back local service that stops almost every block may challenge passengers with mobility issues.
Traditional bus-rapid transit usually travels in dedicated lanes, which paves the way for autonomous vehicles in the future, said Darnell Grisby, director of policy, development and research at the American Public Transportation Association.
Kim Crockett, of the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment, said she worries funding for rapid bus may deplete resources for regular bus service. She’s also concerned that signal priority will affect automobile traffic.
Still, some frequent transit users have embraced the A Line.
“I love how quickly it gets me to Rosedale,” said Jeb Rach, a Midway IT specialist who often uses the A Line to get to work in Roseville. His biggest challenge involves getting to the office after being dropped off at the mall — pedestrian options are limited, local bus connections are infrequent, and there’s no easy biking option, he said.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House transportation committee, wants to think big when it comes to expanding the arterial rapid bus network.
“We have to look at what this system needs to be built out and it should happen rapidly,” he said.
A request for $35 million to complete the D Line fell flat last year; this year the council is requesting $21 million to finish the project.
Beyond the C and D lines, the council is planning the B Line for the second-busiest bus route in the state — now the Route 21 line traversing Lake Street in Minneapolis and Marshall Avenue in St. Paul. The E Line would travel along Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, and possibly to Dinkytown. The location of the remaining six lines has not been determined.
Sen. Scott Newman, the Republican chair of the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, said he “would certainly favor [rapid bus] over light rail because it’s not nearly as expensive.” But he said it’s still early in the session: “Without knowing what the underlying budget forecast is, I can’t comment on it.”
The council hasn’t yet finalized its legislative request for this session. Council spokeswoman Kate Brickman said transit is a critical cog to the region’s economic competitiveness.
“People want reliable, fast transit options, and a big piece of our future system is arterial rapid bus,” she said.
Still, a newly formed coalition called Keep MN Moving, which consists of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, and a transit advocacy group called East Metro Strong, is already pushing lawmakers to support transit funding this session — including money for rapid bus.
“There’s been a pretty steep education curve,” said Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Chamber, regarding a public campaign for more rapid bus service. “It started to take hold last session. Now it’s starting to resonate.”