OPINION | New Bus Rapid Transit line key for transit's future

With relatively little fanfare, the Twin Cities' first bus rapid transit (BRT) line opened Saturday along Cedar Avenue from Apple Valley to the Mall of America in Bloomington. Its performance over the next few years will have a lot to say about the future of transit development in the region.

Through Sunday, you'll still be able to take a free ride on the newly launched Red Line as well as Minnesota Valley Transit's connecting bus routes 420, 438, 440, 442, 444 and 445 serving Apple Valley, Bloomington, Burnsville, Eagan and Rosemount. Regular fares will be collected for other connections, including the Hiawatha Blue Line light rail.

BRT represents an upgrade from standard rubber-tired transit, with large LRT-style vehicles on dedicated shoulder lanes with traffic signal priority, limited station stops offering ticketing machines, level bus entry and round-the-clock service -- every 15 minutes on weekdays, every 30 minutes on weekends.

Although BRT mimics the comfort and convenience of light rail, its price tag is much, much smaller, drawing the support even of some conservative policymakers. Compared with billion-dollar light rail projects, the 11-mile Red Line came in at $112 million, still considered the biggest public construction project ever in Dakota County. The money paid for Cedar Avenue highway bus and turn lanes, wider sidewalks and landscaping, signal and ticketing technology and seven state-of-the-art buses.

On the downside, BRT operating costs can run higher than for rail transit because vehicles with less capacity require more operators per passenger. For a less-traveled route such as the Red Line, with fewer than 1,000 projected riders a day in the first year, it can make fiscal sense, however. In the Red Line's case, the prohibitive cost of a new bridge over the Minnesota River stilled any hopes for light rail. The BRT crosses on the existing Cedar Avenue-Hwy. 77 bridge.

BRT is considered the preferred option for the proposed Gateway Corridor from downtown St. Paul to the Wisconsin border and perhaps beyond. BRT is also the focus of Metropolitan Council planning for bus service enhancements along up to a dozen major arterial streets.

But all eyes will be on the pioneering Red Line, not only for its ridership numbers and cost, but also for its effects on traffic congestion and nearby economic development. Just as disappointing ridership on the Northstar commuter rail line from Minneapolis to Big Lake has tamped down interest in putting more transit trains on freight railroad tracks around the Twin Cities, the Red Line is an important test case for other BRT plans, including a hoped-for 5-mile Red Line extension to two stations in Lakeville.

"When you start a new service like this you need to give it time to mature," Arlene McCarthy, director of transit services to the Met Council, told the Star Tribune. That means the council won't judge its success or failure for up to three years as people learn of the busway and make housing and employment choices in light of it and businesses locate along it, she added.

"I hope that it'll be a great success and ... one that we can replicate in other corridors throughout the region," Met Council chairwoman Susan Haigh told Finance & Commerce.

Luckily, opportunities for real estate development abound around the four current stations in Dakota County, and some of it is already under way. Baltimore-based Paragon Outlet Partners is building a 409,000-square foot outlet mall near the Cedar Grove BRT station in Eagan, the largest current retail development project in the Twin Cities, according to Finance & Commerce. Opening is expected next year.

In addition, vacant land around the three Apple Valley BRT stations is ready for commercial or residential development, city planners say. Job development can be tough for a far suburb such as Apple Valley, but "one of the game-changers we have is having the right tools," community development director Bruce Nordquist told F&C.

Good transit can be one of those tools. Maybe that's why the 100,000-square foot Apple Valley Business Campus that opened this year a mile west of the 147th Street Red Line station is already 60 percent leased, with the rest expected to be occupied by December.

The Red Line has been in the works since 1999, when the first planning was funded by the state at the request of Dakota County officials. Progress was slowed by lawsuits over station sites and the involvement of multiple government agencies and jurisdictions, but the dream of former Apple Valley Mayor and Dakota County Commissioner Will Branning is finally a reality.

"I wanted to see BRT up and running before I retired, but I didn't know if I could ever live that long," he told F&C. "I think it'll work out great."

Whether it does will be up to commuters, travelers to the airport and the Mall of America and real estate developers. If not, expect a very long wait for sketched-out BRT projects such as the Gateway, Lake Street and the Snelling Avenue-Ford Parkway lines. The last one is Metro Transit's top priority for arterial BRT, but it remains $10.2 million short of raising the $25 million needed to open in late 2015.

BRT is already a fixture in many other cities around the country and the world. As usual when it comes to transit modernization, Minnesota is behind the times. The Red Line BRT could go a long way to catching us up.

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Conrad deFiebre's picture
Conrad deFiebre

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020.

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Prototyping The Future

I took advantage of the free period to ride the Red Line out to Apple Valley and back.  The bus wasn't mobbed, but it was an enjoyable ride for me. All I've ever seen of Apple Valley is the zoo.  I got to get a look at the new Cedar Avenue and the countryside. I also got to see how the pieces of the service fit together.  There is some public discussion about how the combined time of the ride to Mall of America and then to the downtowns might limit the appeal of the service. I keep reminding people that they can certainly drive to either downtown, but the cost of parking anywhere is whopping.  At very least, parking in a Park n Ride lot and taking an express bus is the only reasonably priced option for commutes from southern suburbia to Minneapolis and St Paul.

As for this BRT, the least one can say is that it is a pilot study, a prototype for the least costly  system to making quick trips anywhere.  LRTs are everyone's pet project. But the cost of them is intimidating.  If we'd not foolishly wasted borrowing power on prestige projects, maybe we could run LRTs everywhere. Since we've run up huge debts foolishly, we need to think about a transit mix that costs less. BRT's will certainly provide a lot of that mix. Park n Ride and quick bus options are a highly practical way to start cutting carbon emissions, so we are fortunate we are running this pilot study.  It will teach us valuable lessons as we experience the learning curve for 21st century people-moving.

Second Ride

I find the Red Line so relaxing, I had to ride again, trying to use my eyes to fill in blank spots in my perspective. One thing I found out is that Cedar Grove and the main Apple Valley station are where people can park and ride the Red Line.  On the other end, Metro Transit has a ramp near Mall of America.  So a fair amount of places to save gas and ride.

Second discovery is that the ability to purchase tickets at Red Line stations is still waiting rollout.  People were paying with cash, and that should be the least-favored-option.  At the Apple Valley end, Cub sells transit cards, so there is an option until the machines are up and running in the stations.

Third thing that occurred to me. I read the MVTA schedules for its runs to downtowns.  They are kind of random to me.  One runs from 5am to 8:30am.  Seems like riders have to take another line to get home at night.  It seemed obvious to me that MVTA has cherry picked the schedules where a full bus is likely. The Red Line, however, runs with reasonable frequency from early morning to late at night. Meaning people who miss their express will not have to worry about the ride home.  It may take longer, but if they are in a downtown without their car, they will get back to it.  From what I see on the MVTA site, they don't offer the "guaranteed ride home" of Metro Transit, so people using park and ride need an assurance somewhere to ride downtown without a car.