Rider reaction to off-freeway stop has made fixing it a priority sooner than expected.

Just six months after the opening of the Red Line BRT on Cedar Avenue, riders' irritation about a slow, circuitous stop in Eagan is putting pressure on officials to fix it.

Riders of the metro area's first limited-stop bus rapid transit (BRT) service, between Apple Valley and the Mall of America, have been dismayed to find themselves leaving the freeway at Diffley Road and trundling along local streets to make a stop at the Cedar Grove Station in Eagan, adding several minutes to their trip.

Three-fourths of the bus line's riders are taking the bus all the way from Apple Valley to the Mall of America and back again, and the off-freeway stop in Eagan requires a mile of travel on local streets and tedious backtracking to get back on the freeway.

Officials knew the Eagan stop would have to be fixed and had planned to address it in a second phase of development of the $112 million Red Line, but rider reaction has made it "a higher priority much sooner than anticipated," said Kristine Elwood, transit engineer for Dakota County.

The question now is whether it's more important to make the 11-mile ride as fast as possible or to minimize walking for riders getting on or off at the Eagan stop.

Because Eagan is on the stretch of Cedar that is the Hwy. 77 freeway, improving access to the stop will require changes to the freeway.

One option outlined by Kimley-Horn & Associates, a St. Paul consulting firm, would require construction of an elevated bridge that would take buses up from an entrance ramp in the median of the freeway and over Cedar's northbound lanes directly to the station. That approach would cost $18 million and shave 2 to 2.5 minutes off today's 27-minute northbound trip and 3.5 to 4 minutes off the 23-minute southbound trip, according to Kimley-Horn calculations.

Another option would be a stop in the center of the freeway, which would keep buses on the road to make better time. Riders would walk to and from the station on a skyway-like pedestrian bridge. The walk would be 400 feet, about 2.5 minutes, each way. That approach would cost $23 million and shave 4 to 4.5 minutes off the northbound trip and 5.5 to 6 minutes off the southbound trip, according to the consultants.

Eagan favored the spot for the station, hoping it would spark redevelopment in the Cedar Grove area, which is soon to become the site of a new outlet mall, said Eagan community development director Jon Hohenstein. A 2.5-minute walk to a center freeway stop could discourage riders and make the Cedar Grove station less attractive as a magnet for development, Hohenstein said. At a recent workshop Eagan Mayor Mike Maguire said he favors an option that gets buses directly to the station.

A simple way to improve access to the station is to build a ramp directly from northbound Cedar to the station, which is on the east side of Cedar. The consultants presented three alternatives for that approach, but they would benefit only northbound buses.

The off-freeway stop in Eagan stands out because the Red Line's three other stops are made in Apple Valley directly on Cedar Avenue, before it becomes a freeway, and one is at the transit station at the Mall of America.

Reaching the Eagan station requires buses to exit the highway at Diffley Road, turn east to Nicols Road and head north on Nicols to the station. Then after stopping at the station, they backtrack to the freeway again. Along the route, northbound buses travel a mile and have to clear three traffic signals; southbound buses travel a mile and a half and have to clear six signals, according to MnDOT.

Local elected officials are working with representatives of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Dakota County and the Metropolitan Council to study the options and recommend a fix late this year or early next year. Dakota County will make the ultimate decision.

The Red Line is the south metro area's link to the regional transit system of buses and light rail. It connects south metro riders to the Hiawatha Avenue light rail line, the Blue Line, between the Mall of America and downtown Minneapolis.

Ridership on the BRT line is growing slowly. In July, weekday ridership averaged 798 and weekend ridership averaged 450.

In September, weekday ridership averaged 811. Saturdays had an average ridership of 554 and Sundays 437.

Riders to and from Eagan account for 18 percent of the Red Line ridership. Eagan hopes to see that number increase when the Paragon Outlet Mall opens near the station next fall and if other development occurs in the future.

The site for the Eagan station was selected by the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, the south-metro bus service, which said it favored the location because it was in the heart of Eagan's Cedar Grove district, it could be built on MnDOT right of way, eliminating land cost, and it could be connected to the local street network, among other reasons.

MVTA revamped its local bus service to take riders to the station to get on the Red Line, and it is now arguing that the local bus connection should be a consideration in the discussion about which station fix is best.

No time frame has been set for fixing the stop.

If an approach is approved by Dakota County, it would lead efforts to bring in federal, state and regional funds to help pay for the improvements, Elwood said.