The utilitarian cream-colored floor tile and plastic seating in the Mall of America’s transit station — the busiest in the Metro Transit network — stand in stark contrast to the megamall’s vast marbled expanse beyond.
Located in the bowels of the mall’s East parking ramp, the 23-year-old station serves some 2.2 million passengers who use the Blue Line light rail and 11 bus lines annually. As more Twin Cities residents take public transportation and as the mall expands, the Metropolitan Council is planning a $25 million overhaul that will improve the station’s efficiency and upgrade its rather sparse amenities.
“It’s just dark and dank, and not really safe or inviting,” Met Council member Steve Elkins said at a recent council meeting.
But renovation funding is still $8.77 million short, with transit officials hoping to fill the gap with state bonding money in the 2016 legislative session.
One Met Council member, Jon Commers, asked at a meeting last month whether the Mall of America’s owner, Canada-based Triple Five, could pitch in financially. “There needs to be some recognition of the incredible value that’s created with these transit stations,” he said.
MOA officials disagree, noting in a statement the mall has already paid millions in transit and property taxes, as well as contributed land and easements for the station. The Met Council paid $250,000 in 1992 for the station’s original easement, a deal that was extended through 2043.
The remaining funding for the new MOA station will come from Metro Transit, federal sources, the city of Bloomington and a regional transit board.
The suggestion that the mall help pay for a public transit station comes after the Met Council and Minnesota Vikings struck a deal last month over the construction of a $9.65 million pedestrian bridge near the new U.S. Bank Stadium and the Downtown East light-rail stop.
The Vikings agreed to pay up to $6 million for the bridge, while gleaning 90 percent of the advertising revenue from the Downtown East station for 30 years or until the initial contribution is repaid. Annual advertising revenue from the station is an estimated $310,000.
Commers’ suggestion that the MOA could pay more failed to gain traction, and the council approved a $2.3 million contract with North Carolina-based Kimley-Horn for initial design work.
“I’m just one person on a council of 17 people,” Commers said, adding, “I think we at least need to have a conversation about the role of a possible public-private partnership” on transit amenities.
Metro Transit Project Manager Jeff Freeman said 20 percent of the mall’s full-time employees take transit to work. Half the MOA station’s passengers are traveling to the mall, he said, with the rest transferring to other buses or the train.
Demand is expected to increase because of the 342-room J.W. Marriott hotel that just opened at the mall, part of a $350 million expansion that will include an office tower, shops and restaurants opening within the next year.
Plans call for a new bus entrance on the east side of the light-rail tracks, eliminating the need for buses to cross the tracks some 400,000 times annually. The entrance will be more efficient because buses now enter the same security gate as contractors, mall employees and delivery trucks, which causes delays. The number of bus gates will increase from four to 17, including one for the Red Line bus rapid transit, which connects the mall to Apple Valley.
A new passenger waiting area, police substation and walkway to the mall are planned, as well, with construction wrapping up by Black Friday 2017, and opening before the Super Bowl in February 2018, assuming funding is forthcoming.
Several transit users interviewed last week said they thought the current station worked just fine, but others conceded the facility is showing its age.
While waiting for a bus Wednesday, Kenneth Wagner of St. Paul glanced at the dingy concrete floors, littered with forgotten transfer stubs and cigarette butts. “This place has seen better days,” he said.