The long-awaited Cedar Avenue rapid busway, the first of its kind in the Twin Cities, will start all-day, every-day shuttle service between Apple Valley and the Mall of America on Saturday, linking Dakota County into the metro area's growing light rail network.

Employing the newest transit technology, the bus rapid transit (BRT) buses will offer level boarding similar to that of light-rail trains, use beams of light to count passengers as they get on, and communicate with traffic signals to stay on schedule.

Dakota County Commissioner Nancy Schouweiller, a key supporter of the project, expects Cedar ridership to take off.

"The whole problem that Dakota County has is getting all our people out and back," she said of a county that's a big net exporter of commuters during the daytime hours. "I am looking for good ridership numbers. I expect it to help with congestion so I am not hearing Cedar Avenue is backed up every morning."

To start, the busway will operate with an open door policy, allowing people to take as many free rides as they like from June 22 through June 30.

Apple Valley, Eagan and Dakota County officials see unlimited potential for the $112 million busway, to be known as the Red Line in Metro Transit's color-coded transit network, to act as a magnet for development along Cedar. They also hope it will become a useful alternative to the car for south suburban residents going to work or school, to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, or to sports and cultural events in downtown Minneapolis.

Destination options will expand further in 2014, when a new light rail line connecting with Hiawatha will open between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"It's a pretty exciting time for the city," said Apple Valley community development director Bruce Nordquist. With the new BRT, "we're regionally connected, and not just by freeway access. You either have transit service that you can count on that can take you anywhere in the region, or you hope to have it. And our interest will be realized June 22."

A long journey

Dakota County started pushing for BRT in 1999.

That year, Dakota County Commissioner Paul Krause and Will Branning, then mayor of Apple Valley, secured $500,000 in state funding to study it, said Branning, who later became a county commissioner and retired last year.

"We kept pursuing it year after year," Branning said. In 2004, the county completed a comparison study between BRT and light rail transit, concluding that BRT was best for Dakota County. Federal, state and regional money eventually followed, making it a reality.

BRT is designed to operate like a light-rail line, but without as much up-front cost and with more flexibility. The buses are designed to look less like a typical city bus and more like a sleek rail car, and amenities like ticket machines at stations add to the light rail feel.

Starting in 2011 and concluding this year, Dakota County rebuilt four miles of Cedar with 12-foot wide reinforced shoulders where the buses can run. Cedar got other upgrades as well, including a half-mile of widening north of 160th Street in Apple Valley, the addition of turn lanes and upgraded traffic signals at some intersections, and the removal of signals altogether at two intersections to smooth traffic flow.

The county also widened sidewalks and added streetscaping.

BRT buses will use the shoulder lanes at all times of day. They will be permitted to travel up to 15 miles per hour faster than traffic in the regular lanes, within the speed limit, said Dakota County Transportation Director Mark Krebsbach. "This will give the buses travel time savings both in congested periods and at intersections to avoid queues in regular travel lanes.''

The cost of the project — including seven buses, three stations and road improvements — is about $112 million. About 975 riders per day are expected during the first year, with the number growing to 1,600 per day by 2017. The cost of operating the BRT is estimated at $3.2 million a year.

Eagan City Council Member Gary Hansen, chairman of the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA), said the BRT service will supplement — not replace — MVTA's rush hour commuter service to Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"It may take a little time, but we think that eventually the advantages of BRT will be demonstrated and people will use it more as they get used to it," Hansen said. Because the Cedar busway is the first BRT line in the metro area, "We know that people are watching. We will certainly have to be monitoring the usage levels."

One generator of rides for the busway is expected to be the Paragon Outlet Center, just off Cedar next to the Cedar Grove station in Eagan, set to open in August 2014.

"It's going to be a very convenient walk from the station to the center, " said Jon Hohenstein Eagan's community development director. The center will have 1,600 parking spaces, but arriving by BRT is "going to be a very convenient alternative."

The Metropolitan Council, which owns the busway and sets transit policy for the metro area, will give the BRT as much as three years for ridership to grow before drawing any conclusions about its success, said Arlene McCarthy, director of metropolitan transit services for the Met Council.

"When you start a new service like this you need to give it time to mature," McCarthy said. Ridership for new transit lines can take years to mature because it takes time for businesses to locate along the busway, for people to make housing and employment decisions that include the new transit and for people to be educated about the service, she said.

High development hopes

Apple Valley and Eagan expect the BRT to prompt construction of new housing and business development along or near Cedar.

In Apple Valley, a developer is planning to break ground Aug. 1 on the 322-apartment Parkside Village within a half mile of Apple Valley Transit station. Apple Valley has space for more development in its downtown and larger sites for business in 400 acres of land being reclaimed in a former gravel mine, Nordquist said.

The BRT will be a great help to the city in promoting that development, he said.

"It's business that wants efficient accessible transit services" for employees, he said.

Apple Valley is not a distant suburb, but the transit line brings it closer to the heart of the metro area, Nordquist said. "We are 15 minutes from the airport. And we are closer and more functional with regional transit service."

In Eagan, there is land near the outlet mall location that could be developed for a mix of uses. The city recently received a proposal for the construction of a new apartment building there.

"We are looking forward to great potential for transit oriented development in that area," Hansen said.

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287