Beyond the bus

The presence of Metro Transit can be felt practically everywhere in the Twin Cities. Between its 15,000 bus stops, 700 shelters and 19 light rail stops, elements of the Metro Transit system feel virtually omnipresent even without setting foot on a bus or train. 

And the Metro Transit network is only growing larger. The service has several major expansions in the works that will bring new transit options to commuters around the metro area and help Metro Transit achieve its goal of increasing ridership to 145 million by 2030. 

The best-known Metro Transit project currently in the works is the Central Corridor Light Rail line. The first expansion of light rail service in the Twin Cities since the completion of the original Hiawatha line, construction on the project has been long and occasionally contentious. When completed in the second half of 2014, the Central Corridor Light Rail line will connect downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul with 11 miles of track and 18 new stations. The new line will share five stations with the Hiawatha line, terminating in Minneapolis at the upcoming transportation hub the Interchange. 

Travel time between The Interchange and the line’s final stop at Union Depot in St. Paul will take 39 minutes, and Metro Transit is projecting ridership of over 40,000 by 2030. However, Metro Transit’s deputy chief operating officer for rail Ed Byers said he doesn’t think most riders will ride the full length of the route.  

“It’s a different type of system,” said Byers. “People won’t be riding end to end. People will be riding a few stations.”

The Central Corridor line is expected to generate a great deal of development along its length. Tim Griffin of the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, the non-profit organization helping craft development guidelines along the light rail expansion, said he expects to see a large number of projects break ground near the new light rail line in the near future. Many of these projects will be private developments. Others will be led by government agencies, such as the proposed green infrastructure plan. A collaboration between Minneapolis, St. Paul and the parks departments of both cities, the plan will identify 10 sites along the Central Corridor line for green infrastructure projects, such as environmentally responsible ways to divert storm water.

“There are five projects going on within the next three years at the Fairview station. And that’s just one station,” said Griffin. “The idea of 10 to 1 has been around for a long time, 10 times the amount of private investment to public investment. The LRT is basically a billion-dollar investment, so it’s not unreasonable to over 20 years see that leverage 10 billion dollars. I’d stand by that quote.”

By the time it is up and running, the Central Corridor line will be know by another name: the Green Line. The Hiawatha line will be renamed the Blue Line. The name change is part of a rebranding strategy that rechristens the light rail system as the Metro. The Metro system also includes proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines called the Orange Line on Interstate 35W and the Red Line, which would start at the end of the Blue Line and run down Cedar Avenue to Lakeville.  

There are no true BRT lines yet in the Metro Transit system, but public relations manager John Siqveland calls the stations of I-35W “proto BRT” and has a simple way to sum up the service. “The idea here is that it mimics light rail, but uses buses,” he said. “The stations for BRT are similar to a light rail station. You pay your fare on the platform. You board all doors. The vehicles are comfortable.”

Like light rail stations, the boarding platforms of BRT stations will be level with the entrance to the vehicles, so passengers can board without climbing steps. Level entrances eliminate the need for special accommodations for disabled customers and speeds the boarding process. Paying fares on the platform also keeps the boarding time down, as customers don’t have to pause inside the vehicle door to pay fares on a bus. These features, as well as limited stops and dedicated lanes such as bus-only shoulders on highways allow BRT service to mimic the high-speed service of light rail. BRT service will supplement existing bus route, not replace it – local service with more frequent stops will continue along the routes. Siqveland said the new BRT lines will begin rolling out in phases within the next few years. In addition to freeway BRT, Metro Transit is eyeing Snelling Avenue, West 7th Street and East 7th Street in St. Paul for “arterial BRT,” or BRT on surface streets. 

“The goal is to have Snelling online in 2014 in time for the Green Line launch,” he said. “We want to add maybe one of these corridors per year, starting around 2014.”

All of the Metro’s lines, both light rail and BRT, will ultimately converge at the Interchange, the new transit hub under construction next to Target Field. Also scheduled to open in 2014, the Interchange will serve as a central transportation hub for the region. In addition to serving as the major transfer point for the Metro routes, the Interchange will also be the place to catch the Northstar Commuter Rail and over 1,900 buses daily. The Interchange also figures prominently into two additional proposed routes, a light rail line from Minneapolis to Eden Prarie and a light rail or BRT line between Minneapolis and Osseo, Dayton and Rogers. 

With so many major projects in the works, it is no surprise that Metro Transit is considering other projects designed to keep using the service as simple as possible. While the Metro Transit website has a mobile version optimized for use on smart phones, the organization is considering a development of an official Metro Transit app. Not only could the app potentially deliver real-time route updates and schedules to your phone, it may even transform your phone into a replacement for your bus card. Metro Transit is also considering adding QR Codes to bus stops, which could be scanned with the app for updates. These technological upgrades aren’t a sure thing, but Siqveland said they are definitely being discussed.

Of course, none of the infrastructure or technology improvements in the works at Metro Transit would be possible without the people in the driver’s seats’ of its vehicle fleet. In the next installment of this series, we will check in with the people who keep Metro Transit literally moving.