On Friday, a group of elected officials and transportation advocates celebrated a rare bit of good news involving public transit: The start of new rapid bus service along Snelling Avenue, the busy thoroughfare that runs through the heart of St. Paul.
The sleek new buses are slated to begin service on Saturday.
“Great regions have great transit,” St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said at a sweltering news conference Friday. “Period. End of sentence.”
But other, higher-profile transit projects were stopped cold during this year’s legislative session, including the controversial $1.79 billion Southwest light rail line, and the $150 million Orange bus rapid transit line along Interstate 35W. Both failed to win state funds totaling $135 million and $12 million, respectively, that they need to move forward.
A few of those attending the news conference couldn’t resist a last-ditch plea for a special legislative session that would include comprehensive transportation funding for roads and bridges, as well as public transit projects.
In the midst of all the political warfare, the relatively thrifty $27 million Snelling Avenue A Line rapid bus line, one of a dozen planned for the Twin Cities over the next 15 years, didn’t generate much animus from transit foes.
“We can’t put light rail everywhere,” remarked Roseville Mayor Dan Roe.
The A Line is not exactly a bus rapid transit (BRT) line — where buses zip along dedicated thoroughfares with a limited number of stops. Although it will operate in traffic, it is expected to be faster than the workhorse Route 84 bus, which has up to 80 stops between Rosedale Center and the 46th Street Blue Line light-rail station in Minneapolis.
In contrast, the A Line has 20 stations in high-traffic areas, with links not only to the Blue Line, but to the Green Line light rail at University Avenue, as well. The A Line will be six to eight minutes faster than the Route 84 bus, according to Katie Roth, project manager for Metro Transit.
In some ways, the A Line mimics light-rail service — passengers pay at ticket machines or swipe their transit passes before they board the bus, either in front or at its midsection. This saves time because bus drivers don’t have to idle while passengers fumble for their transfer ticket or spare change to make their fares.
The new bus stops, which cost $15 million to build, inform passengers when the next bus is arriving in real time, and feature bike racks, security cameras and heat lamps for chillier days.
The buses run every 10 minutes during rush hours, midday, evening and weekends, providing a level of scheduling reliability for passengers not found on the Route 84 bus. Service is less frequent during early morning hours and late at night.
In addition, the buses are outfitted with communications equipment that gives them priority over other vehicles at 19 of the 34 traffic signals along the line. The bus equipment, which cost $1 million, “asks” the traffic signals for early or extended green lights to keep service moving.
Snelling Avenue was chosen after Metro Transit studied the number of potential riders, existing traffic, and the connections to light rail, Roth said. Current ridership is 4,000 passengers a day, but Metro Transit claims that number should double by 2030.
The fact that the route passes near two major commercial real estate projects — the redevelopment of the former Ford plant, and the Minnesota United soccer stadium, helped put Snelling Avenue at the top of the list, she said. The line also touches the campuses of Hamline University and Macalester College.
Still, those relying on the Route 84 local service may be disappointed because that local route will be pared back to serve just St. Paul, and will run every 30 minutes. The local service had run every 10 minutes, with three route variations.
Kjensmo Walker, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Accessibility Advisory Committee, said there were similar concerns when the Route 16 bus service along University Avenue was curtailed two years ago in favor of the Green Line light rail.
But “people got used to it,” she said, noting the new station and bus amenities will be much easier for disabled passengers to negotiate.