The Quarterly Transit Report – December 2021

Two opposing things happen on December 4: a big increase in services and an even bigger reduction in services. The increase is the opening of Orange Line bus rapid transit on I-35W from downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville, as well as new or improved service routes. Together, they add 1,342 weekly bus trips to the system. Metro Transit currently lacks 80 drivers to operate its system. In order to have enough drivers to run the orange line and hopefully the rest of the system, they cut the service to 3,142 trips per week.

Introduction to the orange line
The orange line replaces the I-35W portion of Route 535 and extends it from Bloomington to Burnsville. The new frequency is 15 minutes all day, with added weekend service. Route 535 was operating at a peak hour of 15 minutes, 30 minutes at noon and had no service on weekends.

The replacement of Route 535 involves certain compromises. The 535 has sprouted several off-highway branches in Bloomington to serve Lyndale Avenue, the industrial park around 94th and James, and, more importantly, Normandale Community College at 98th and France Avenue. Each of these provided trips to a seat that will now require a transfer to a power bus. On the plus side, the Orange Line will offer faster trips between Minneapolis and Bloomington on the 35W corridor, more frequent service to its line stations, and expanded access to Burnsville. Anyone traveling from downtown to 98th Street will save 6-10 minutes. The upgraded power buses will extend the reach of the Orange Line and open up more commuter-to-commuter travel options.

Downtown, the Orange Line will use the Marquette-2e Avenue S. bus lanes, such as 535. Once on 35W, it will stop at the recently opened impressive Lake Street station, with connections to Route 21 Selby-Lake and the little-known route 27, 26th Street-28th Street crosstown to Hiawatha Avenue. The 535 and other express buses were unable to stop at Lake Street during the highway construction, so hopefully there will be a resumption of ridership. For passengers traveling with their bikes, there is a new direct connection along Stevens Avenue to the Midtown Greenway.

The existing 46th Street station provides connections to Route 46 46th Street Crosstown, Route 11 4th Avenue South, and Route 18 Nicollet Avenue.

At 66th Street, the bus leaves the freeway briefly to merge onto Route 515 66th Street Crosstown to Southdale and Mall of America.

Like 535, the Orange Line exits at 76th Street and stops on Knox Avenue next to Best Buy’s corporate headquarters. There it connects to Route 540 76th-77th Street Crosstown. The transfer point on 76th and the large parking lot behind Best Buy are almost two blocks apart. The 535 stopped at both, but the orange line made a single stop in the middle. I predict that the longer walk will discourage both the transfer and the use of park and ride facilities.

The orange line digs under I-494 on a new bus route. Route 535 had to make a detour to the 76th to reach the park and then back to the 76th and cross the 494 onto Penn Avenue. The new tunnel shortens the journey by one kilometer and avoids seven traffic lights, saving several minutes. The tradeoff is that much of the Southtown area’s retail business is missing.

There is a station where it crosses American Blvd., with connections to branches of Route 4 Lyndale and Penn Avenue, to Route 538 Southdale-MOA via 86th Street, new Route 534 to Lyndale in Bloomington and west from Bloomington, and the new US Route 542 Boulevard Crosstown.

From there, take 35W back to the South Bloomington Transit Center / Park-ride at 98th Street. There it connects with Route 18 Nicollet Avenue, Route 534 Lyndale Avenue, Route 539 MOA-Normandale College, Route 546 Old Shakopee Road, and Route 547 Southwest Bloomington. While the northbound Orange Line buses can exit and reenter the highway quickly, southbound buses require a long and long detour. An online station would have been expensive, but would have saved several minutes.

After crossing the Minnesota River, the orange line ends at the new Heart of the City station in Burnsville on Nicollet Avenue at Travelers Trail. The idea was to stop within walking distance of a fairly dense development. However, it does not serve the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority’s Burnsville transit station with its huge park and ride, located a few blocks across Highway 13. I was told that MVTA denied Metro Transit’s request to serve Burnsville station. This means there is no parking in Burnsville and no connection to Route 495 to Savage and Shakopee. It is also difficult for downtown commuters on the 460 nonstop express route and at peak hours only of the MVTA to use the orange line if they have to travel outside of rush hour.

We have to wonder about the MVTA’s commitment to the success of the Orange Line. It makes sense that MVTA will continue to operate the express during rush hour of Route 460 to the city center (31 minutes against 38 for the orange line). But it appears they also plan to continue operating their off-peak route 465 (33 minutes from downtown, including a stop at 98th Street) in competition with the Orange Line. It’s already arrived. When Dakota County transferred operation of the BRT Red Line from MVTA to Metro Transit, MVTA responded by creating a duplicate competitor service between Apple Valley Transit Station and Mall of America, the currently suspended 442X route.

On the positive side, MVTA has promised a new connection of Route 425 to Burnsville Center and its Route 444 Burnsville Parkway will also be connected as it passes through Heart of the City station on Nicollet Avenue.

There is another station (actually a half station) in Burnsville at Burnsville Parkway. Only northbound trips stop here after leaving Heart of the City. Anyone traveling south wishing to return to Burnsville Parkway should make an 8-minute stopover in the heart of the city. I predict this will generate few runners.

Most of the corridor has traffic advantages for buses. Buses will have priority at almost all traffic lights south of downtown. There are downtown bus lanes, downtown HOV lanes at 66th Street and 98th Street in Burnsville. There are HOV entry ramps everywhere except 82nd Street. From 66th to 76th Street, too short a distance to enter and exit HOV lanes, there are dedicated bus shoulders. The distance between 82nd and 98th Street is also too short for buses to use the HOV lane. Shoulders reserved for buses would be an advantage, but do not currently exist.

Will the Orange Line attract more than the pre-Covid 535 total of around 1,700 runners per day? This is a valid question because of the limited potential for walk-in traffic at stations, and because single-seat trips now require a transfer. There is no parking in Burnsville. The line will be very dependent on transfers to and from other bus lines. More frequency is a plus, as well as faster travel time, the Burnsville extension, new Lake Street station, weekend service, nicer stations, and a more food bus network. extended.

Service cuts
Because of Covid, Metro Transit had to drastically reduce the service to minimize its financial losses. Now it needs to cut further to have enough train drivers and operators to meet regular service. Such is the difficulty in recruiting new drivers in these times of labor shortages.

As you might expect, the cuts were targeted where they would impact the fewest runners with one possible exception. Twelve more rush-hour commuter routes are on hold, acknowledging that downtown office workers just haven’t returned yet. Other routes that run all day see their frequencies at peak times reduced.

Ridership on some of the heavier routes is half or less of what it was before Covid, so their frequencies are reduced. LRTs had already gone from a frequency of 10 minutes to 12 minutes. Now Line A and Route 2 are also changing from 10 minutes to 12 minutes. Route 18 goes from 7.5 minutes to 10 minutes. On three routes, Saturday service is reduced to the same level as Sunday.

There are routes that have always had low traffic. Half of the trips on the 70 Burns Avenue and 219 Sunray-White Bear routes were cut, along with one-third of the trips on the BRT Red Line and 87 Rosedale-Highland Park. The 18G Grand Avenue branch and 223 Rosedale-Maplewood Mall and 604 St. Louis Park suburban circulators have been completely suspended.

The most potentially controversial cuts are the three local routes that serve the intermediate stops left by the green LRT line and line A and line C BRT. Roads 16 University Avenue, 84 Snelling Avenue and 19 Penn Avenue N. have been completely suspended. These main downtown corridors now only have a limited stop service, typically stopping every 800 meters or so. Hard to believe that this will not lead to a setback.