Every year, fewer and fewer people take a public bus to work, school or social events in the Twin Cities.
The persistent decline is due to many reasons, including road construction that prompts delays, cheap gas prices that coax car-owners to drive and a pernicious shortage of bus drivers that could result in trips being pared, affecting the overall system’s reliability. Bus ridership was down more than 5% through November compared with the same period last year, and declined 8% between 2016 and 2018.
But Metro Transit has a strategy to stem the slump and attract riders back to the bus: expanding bus-rapid transit (BRT). And 2020 will be an important year to plan and secure funding for a half-dozen new BRT lines that promise smoother, better service in years to come.
“The higher quality of the service, the more people will be interested in taking the bus,” said Yingling Fan, a professor of regional planning at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Metro Transit is betting big on expanding arterial BRT, with six more lines in the works. Rapid buses arrive every 10 minutes during peak hours and, though they operate in traffic, have signal priority at intersections. Passengers pay before boarding so there are no frantic searches for fares as the bus idles. Stations are heated and feature real-time schedule information. It’s a light-rail type of experience, but built for a fraction of the cost.
The metro’s first rapid bus, the A line, debuted in 2016, connecting the Blue Line’s 46th Street light-rail station in Minneapolis to Rosedale mall. Ridership along the Snelling Avenue corridor increased by a third during the $27 million A line’s first year and has continued to creep up.
Enter the C line, which began rapid bus service in June along the Route 19 corridor from downtown Minneapolis to the Brooklyn Center Transit Center, mostly along Penn Avenue. The service features several electric buses — a first for Metro Transit. Within five months of beginning service, the C line surpassed 1 million rides.
“With all those speed and reliability improvements, we’ve now proven twice over this is a way to grow ridership and increase the value that transit provides for these communities,” said Charles Carlson, Metro Transit’s director of bus rapid transit projects.
The success of both the A and C lines has attracted attention from other transit agencies nationwide as they face similar declines in bus ridership.
“It’s become a model based partly on the success we’ve had, [and] what we’ve learned from others,” Carlson said.
But the growing rapid bus program could stall if at least $20 million in funding is not secured in 2020 for the D line, the next project in the pipeline. The Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Transit, will again ask Gov. Tim Walz to include $50 million in his bonding request next year for the program, after failing to secure funds the past two years.
The $75 million D line would connect the Brooklyn Center Transit Center to the Mall of America through north, south and downtown Minneapolis — now the Route 5 corridor, the busiest in the state.
Whether the Met Council is able to lock in funding at the Capitol will affect the planned B line, as well. That line would follow the Route 21 corridor along Lake Street in Minneapolis and Marshall Avenue eventually to downtown St. Paul — now the slowest and second-busiest route in the Metro Transit system. If funded, it could begin service in 2023.
The fifth rapid bus line, the E line, could connect Dinkytown in Minneapolis to Uptown and on to Southdale Center in Edina in 2024. Funding for that line hasn’t been secured, either.
“Having stable funding is really critical to progressing bus service in the region,” said Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra.
However, there are a few bright spots for bus service expansion in the metro. Three true BRT projects — which would operate largely in dedicated lanes — are expected to make meaningful progress in 2020.
Construction has already begun on the $150 million Orange Line BRT connecting Minneapolis to Burnsville along Interstate 35W and serving major employers Best Buy, HealthPartners, Wells Fargo and Toro. A $74 million federal grant was awarded to the Orange Line earlier this year to help fuel construction, and service is expected to begin in 2021.
And a key environmental assessment was completed this year for the Gold Line BRT, connecting Woodbury to Union Depot in downtown St. Paul. The $461 million project will likely move into the engineering phase next year, with passenger service beginning in 2024.
Ramsey County continues to work on the Rush Line, a BRT line between Union Depot and White Bear Lake. Public engagement will continue next year, with an environmental study expected to be published in the fourth quarter. The 14-mile project, estimated to cost between $420 million and $475 million, is expected to begin service in 2026.