Four key transit lines serve as focal points for metro area transit
Blue, Green, Red, Orange colors outline current, future transit corridors
BY T.W. BUDIG
A transit rainbow brightens the metro horizon.
The Met Council recently color-coded transit lines — some built, some under construction — it looks to help double transit ridership to 140 million by 2030.
Bar graph squiggles show ridership on pace to reach the goal.
Helping to pull the weight are four transit lines, officially designated by colors.
The veteran Hiawatha light rail line, a 12-mile section in Minneapolis to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, is the Blue Line.
The Green Line, existing in part on paper, are the Central/Southwest light rail lines, a proposed 26-mile shot through heavily travelled corridors that within six years will allow Eden Prairie commuters to take their seats and ride uninterrupted to the State Capitol and downtown St. Paul, if they choose.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton spoke of construction noises penetrating the Governor’s Office from the Central Corridor construction on University Avenue outside the State Capitol.
“Yesterday, they were beeping the whole day — they backed up the whole day,” Dayton recently quipped of the earthmovers.
The two other lines, Red and Orange, color-code the Cedar Avenue and I-35W bus rapid transit lines (BRT), respectively. These lines offer the flexibility and electronic gadgetry of light rail service, while employing the workhorse of the transit system, buses.
The Northstar Commuter Rail Line funnels commuters from the northern suburbs to the downtown Minneapolis transportation hub near Target Field.
Beyond the corridors, transit lines vary.
For instance, Central Corridor Light Rail Line, a $957 million project, boasting 18 new stations and planned peak hour stops of every 10 minutes, unlike Hiawatha is being built down the middle of the road.
“That’s one big difference,” said Laura Baenen, a Met Council project spokeswoman.
Construction is still in earth-churning stages, but by next year, the Central Corridor is expected to be finished to the extent test runs will take place.
Indeed, the final construction stages, the placement of overhead wires, will be “a cleaner, tidier kind of work,” said Baenen.
Central Corridor is expected to open in 2014, with Southwest light rail beginning to load commuters four years later.
As with other transit projects, the decision to go with light rail versus buses reflects population densities, projected ridership levels, the desire of local government, Baenen explained.
One factor influencing decisions regarding Cedar Avenue BRT was that the bridge over the Minnesota River is not designed to accommodate light rail and to rebuild it would have been painfully expensive, a Met Council official explained.
Light rail is currently being studied in other transit corridors.
Hennepin County is examining its use in the Bottineau Transitway, a proposed 13-mile route through Minneapolis and northwest suburban cities of Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal, New Hope, Brooklyn Park, Maple Grove and Osseo.
The county put the cost of developing light rail at $900 million; cost of developing BRT at $500 million.
Met Council officials view the proposed transitway at this point the business of Hennepin County.
Developing transit is not without negative impacts and controversy.
Dayton, for one, views the narrowing of roadway along Central Corridor the work of transit ideologues flexing their muscle.
“So they build the case for public transit — I think that’s unfortunate,” Dayton said.
But Baenen pointed out that University Avenue, the longest stretch on the corridor, will retain double-lane traffic each way because studies show it would cause too much congestion to do otherwise.
On other short stretches, such as the Washington Avenue Bridge where traffic is reduced to single lane each way, studies show congestion will not result, she explained.
Some 1,400 businesses are located along Central Corridor and Met Council officials have been mindful of the impact line construction has on them, Baenen explained.
In addition to providing up-to-date construction information, some financial resources have been made available.
“Is everyone happy, no,” she said.
Dayton expressed concern. “I hope they (businesses) come back,” Dayton said. “I hope the customers come back,” he said.
The impact on business will be not be the same along the entire Green Line, Baenen explained.
Commercial development along Southwest Corridor is less compact. “So that would be very different,” Baenen said.
Met Council officials herald support business groups, such as TwinWest Chamber of Commerce, have given the proposed Southwest Corridor development.
Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh last year spoke of plans by UnitedHealth Group to build a third campus along the Southwest Corridor — 6,000 additional jobs to the area.
That would not have happened without corridor development, she argued.
“It’s (Southwest light rail) already attracting more jobs and investment,” Haigh said.
More recently, Haigh explained that though Dayton’s recent bonding request for Southwest failed to gain traction, in general the transit line funding is solid.
Transit projects have their ups and downs.
Former Pawlenty Administration Met Council Chairman Peter Bell said shortly before leaving office most transit projects suffer a series of near-death experiences before finally reaching fruition.
Two stripes in the transit rainbow, the Orange and Red lines, tap into light rail refinements.
“It’s (BRT) bus service that operates like light rail service,” Met Transit official John Siqveland said.
“It’s a different character of bus service,” he said.
Something of the spirit of BRT can be seen in the stylish, two-level transit station on I-35W at 46th Street in Minneapolis.
The station is located “online,” or on the highway as a means of saving time otherwise lost by getting on and off the highway.
Standing on the boarding platform the roar of traffic gives credence that the I-35W corridor is indeed one of the heaviest traveled in the state.
BRT stations can offer level boarding, advanced fare collection, schedules similar to light rail, with buses speedily running in dedicated lanes.
“It’s a very attractive all-day option,” Met Transportation Services Director Arlene McCarthy said.
BRT will not replace express bus service, but offer more choices, Met Council officials say.
The I-35W BRT runs between Minneapolis and Lakeville, with Cedar Avenue running 16-miles from Mall of America in Bloomington through Eagan, Apple Valley, to Highway 70 in Lakeville.
Once the Cedar Avenue BRT project is complete, the corridor will have 13 BRT stations and a handful of park and rides.
Total capital cost is estimated at $225 million.
Both McCarthy and Siqveland view BRT as attracting new riders.
“We feel good about our ability to retain customers,” Siqveland said. Gaining new ones is getting commuters to step across the transit threshold, he explained.
Beyond this, transportation planners are forced to confront traffic congestion.
According to Dakota County, about 150,000 vehicles daily currently travel Cedar Avenue to cross the Minnesota River.
That number is expected to almost double over the next 20 years.
If the corridor is left unattended, the current average speed of 35 mph in Apple Valley on Cedar Avenue will slow to 12 mph by 2030, it’s projected.
Met Council planners look to BRT as possible transit solutions on arterial roadways.
But there are more transit ways than those depicted with splashes of colors.
The Red Rock Corridor stretches 30-miles from Hastings to Union Station in downtown St. Paul, roughly following Hwy. 61/I-94.
Currently, a study is being conducted in the corridor, examining freight and commuter rail options.
The Met Council’s 2030 Transportation Policy Plan anticipates construction of an additional commuter rail corridor in the Twin Cities between 2020 and 2030, according to Red Rock Corridor officials.
A transit station is currently being developed in the City of Newport.
Another corridor under study is the Rush Line, an 80-mile transit corridor generally following Hwy. 61/35E from Hinckley to Union Station and beyond.
This region is expected to grow by 158,000 by 2030.
The Metro Transit fleet includes about 879 buses, 27 light-rail cars, 18 commuter-rail passenger cars and 6 commuter-rail locomotives.
Each weekday, Metro Transit, operated by the Met Council, sees some 256,000 riders board its transit fleet.￼
T.W. Budig is the Capitol reporter for ECM Publishers.