Metro Transit begins planning for region’s next rapid bus lines

Metro Transit is asking bus riders where its growing network of rapid bus lines should go, as the agency moves toward an ambitious goal of fast and frequent all-day service along some of the Twin Cities’ most densely populated corridors.

Two rapid bus lines are already up and running, and this fall Metro Transit won bonding bill money to build two more. The four lines — plus another already in the planning stage — are the first of as many as 15 rapid bus lines the agency aims to build by 2040, likely replacing some of the busiest and slowest buses in the metro.

This week, Metro Transit is moving ahead with its Network Next initiative to expand and improve the bus network by asking riders to identify corridors where the next rapid bus lines should go.

Metro Transit staff had identified 19 corridors as possibilities for the new F, G and H lines. That list was later whittled to 10, and from those, four were identified for construction between 2025 and 2030.

The routes identified were along Central Avenue, (the current Route 10), Como/Maryland (Route 3), Johnson/Lyndale (Route 4), and Rice/Robert (Routes 62 and 68). Riders will be asked to weigh in on a survey starting Wednesday, and their feedback will help determine which of the four rapid bus lines should be built first, said Katie Roth, Metro Transit’s assistant director of Bus Rapid Transit projects.

Arterial Bus Rapid Transit (ABRT) offers passengers an experience similar to light rail, but is far cheaper to build. Several BRT lines can be built for the cost of a single LRT line.

“We want to expand high-quality transit service, to make transit fast and more comfortable for customers,” Roth said.

The region’s first ABRT line, the A-Line, opened on Snelling Avenue in 2016. Then came the C-Line running from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Center via Penn Avenue. With money from the state Legislature, plans to build the next two lines will proceed “full steam ahead,” Roth said.

The $75 million D Line, now the Route 5 local bus, will connect the Brooklyn Center Transit Center to the Mall of America, through north and south Minneapolis, Richfield and Bloomington. Service is scheduled to begin in late 2022.

The B Line will largely replace Route 21 local bus service, among the slowest in Metro Transit’s system. It will link Uptown Minneapolis to Union Depot in St. Paul. With a price tag of $55 million to $65 million, the B Line is expected to begin service in 2024.

Currently in development is the unfunded E Line on the Hennepin Avenue corridor, which would link the University of Minnesota with Southdale Center in Edina. It would largely replace the current Route 6.

Despite a steep drop in bus ridership this year attributed largely to the pandemic, ABRT lines have been one of Metro Transit’s bright spots. Both the A and C lines saw huge ridership gains — as high as 30% — before COVID-19 hit. Even as the agency has encouraged riders to use the bus only for essential trips during the pandemic, the A and C lines have been among Metro Transit’s most used.

“They serve a lot of different trips — they don’t just serve people going to a 9 to 5 job,” Roth said. “They are getting essential workers to where they need to be. That is the kind of network ABRT would be able to deliver.”

Nobody is quite sure if or how fast riders will return to transit when the pandemic ends, but planning for and building a network of fast, reliable and efficient transportation is “one of the most worthwhile investments we can make now,” said Andrew Owen, director of the Accessibility Observatory at the University of Minnesota.

BRT can improve trips for current riders and make transit an attractive option those who don’t currently use it, Owen said.

“In 2025, we don’t want to look back and use 2020 as an excuse and say, ‘I wish we had a better transit system,'” he said.

Tom Fisher, a professor and director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota, said more people may be transit-dependent once the pandemic ends.

“People may not have has a much money to operate or own vehicles,” he said. “There will be a need for transit. It’s wise to be spending on infrastructure now, just like they have been doing highway improvements during the drop in traffic.”

Hayley Richardson, a spokeswoman for TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation that works to improve public transit in cities across the United States, points to places such as Seattle, Los Angeles, Austin, Tex. and Missoula, Mont. where improvements are being made to bus and train systems during a downturn in ridership.

“If you make it safe, reliable and a convenient option, people will come back to transit, so we think agencies should move ahead with capital transit projects,” Richardson said. “When riders come back to transit, you need to have service there for them. Otherwise they buy a car and then it’s really hard to get them back.”

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768