The Route 54 bus has served St. Paul’s W. 7th Street neighborhood since streetcars stopped rumbling through more than a half-century ago.
But earlier this month, transit advocates cheered when the bus service was extended through the Capitol City’s East Side all the way to Maplewood.
Now, Route 54 stretches from a big park-and-ride at the Maplewood Mall to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America, paring the need for time-consuming transfers. Before, service stopped at Union Depot in downtown St. Paul.
East Sider Dainaja Ranson, a patient-care assistant who doesn’t own a car, said Monday she was delighted she could ride to both malls without switching buses. “It’s definitely more convenient,” she said.
The expanded route, completed for $7.2 million, prompted little hand-wringing among transit planners and public funders. The majority of the cost for five new buses, operating expenses and a few new shelters was covered by a $5.3 million federal grant, with the remaining funds coming from Metro Transit.
“There are so many people and jobs along that route,” said William Schroeer, executive director of East Metro Strong, a transit advocacy group.
It provides one-seat transportation for East Siders working at the airport and the Bloomington megamall, Schroeer said, plus the St. Paul campus of Metropolitan State University, state office buildings east of downtown, and the Maplewood shopping center, which has about 130 stores.
Route 54 is among Metro Transit’s busiest, with just over 1.3 million rides provided in 2017. Route 54 racked up some 4,200 weekday rides on average last year, but with the extension, the number of daily riders is expected to increase to 6,500 by 2021.
Strong ridership prompted the route’s improvement, according to Metro Transit spokesman Drew Kerr, who noted that it offers better access to the Green and Blue light-rail lines, as well as the Red Line bus-rapid transit between the Mall of America and Apple Valley.
Jake Reilly, who lives south of Lake Phalen, said the new service cuts five to seven minutes off his daily commute to downtown St. Paul.
“It’s most useful when my wife has the car, and I take my twin toddlers to day care,” he said. In that scenario, the family takes the Route 54 to Union Depot and then the Green Line to the Fairview Avenue light-rail stop.
About 93 percent of the Metropolitan State University’s students drive to school, but enhanced bus service might prompt them to try public transit, said Tom Cook, special assistant to the president. “Every time we offer free transit passes, they disappear like, yesterday,” he said.
In addition, Cook said, millennials “are predisposed to transit, that’s the way they’re wired.”
Metro Transit said half the trips on Route 54 from W. 7th Street will extend to Maplewood Mall, with rush-hour service every 20 minutes on the extension and every half-hour at other times. Between the Mall of America and downtown St. Paul, service will be provided every 10 minutes during morning and evening rush hours.
The routes will eventually change should the Rush Line bus-rapid transit begin service between downtown St. Paul and White Bear Lake in 2026.
Plus, the Riverview Corridor “modern streetcar” is planned for W. 7th Street between the Union Depot and the Mall of America. But that project is still early in the planning stages, and isn’t supposed to begin passenger service until 2028, assuming it’s funded.
Ruth Campbell, owner of the popular Swede Hollow Cafe on the city’s East Side, said it’s difficult to say whether better bus service will improve business.
“I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt,” she said. “It will help for employees for sure.
“It’s always nice to have a good transportation system on the East Side,” Campbell said.