"If you build it, they will come.” It could be said that the iconic line from the film “Field of Dreams” is how it played out for Minneapolis/St. Paul-based Metro Transit as the transportation system’s ridership continues to flourish as the agency moves forward with its expansion plans.
In 2012, Metro ridership on its bus, light rail and commuter rail systems topped 81 million for only the second time in a generation, increasing by 165,044 rides compared to 2011. The number also marked the sixth consecutive year ridership topped 76 million — a milestone not previously achieved since 1983.
At the mid-year point of 2013, the good news continued with the agency’s ridership coming in at just under 40 million rides — 312,000 more than the same period in 2012, with daily ridership on the Northstar commuter rail line reaching the highest number in its over four-year history.
Ridership growth has been a catalyst for the Twin Cities to move forward with several projects, including the recently opened METRO Red Line bus rapid transit (BRT) system, the 11-mile METRO Green Line light rail system set to launch in mid-2014, and an ambitious decade-long plan to convert Metro Transit’s highest ridership bus routes into rapid bus service corridors.
Light rail yields new development
Metro Transit serves the seven-county metropolitan area of the Twin Cities with a vast majority of users — 80% — taking advantage of the system for commuting to work or school.
In summer 2011, the Metropolitan Council — the regional body that governs Metro Transit — approved renaming the Hiawatha Light Rail line the METRO Blue Line as part of a broader scheme for identifying the area’s network of light rail and BRT systems.
The branding change officially took effect this May, and the light rail line hit its largest ridership numbers in 2012 since its 2004 launch. With more than 85 million boardings since its opening, METRO Blue Line ridership is trending almost 30% ahead of initial year 2020 projections.
“The introduction of light rail really did bring new people to transit; people who hadn’t previously tried our bus service,” explains John Siqveland, public relations manager, Metro Transit. “Overall, I think the Blue Line’s success is a combination of the destinations on the line, the modifications made to strengthen connections with underlying bus service, as well as the highly reliable operation.”
Siqveland adds the destinations riders can reach on the Blue Line are a model for a successful line. The 12.3-mile line features 19 stations and extends from the central entertainment and business districts of Minneapolis to the southern suburb of Bloomington, with major connections including a VA Medical Center; the Mall of America; the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport; the Metrodome, home of the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings; and Major League Baseball’s Minnesota Twins’ ballpark, Target Field. The line also features two large Park & Ride facilities.
The success of the Blue Line has also helped spur development along the line. At the north end, housing and office projects are planned or underway in the North Loop and near Target Field. Directly adjacent to the Nicollet Mall Station, a 26-story apartment building is being built — the first high-rise in Minneapolis in 30 years. Plans to add offices, green space and apartments near the site of the new Vikings Stadium are taking shape as well. East of the 38th Street Station, a 180-unit apartment building, Longfellow Station, is nearing completion. And in Bloomington, plans for a 50-acre transit-oriented development around the Bloomington Central Station are taking shape as the Mall of America continues to expand.
In 2009, to accommodate the growth of the line without adding trains to the schedule or adding more drivers, Metro began lengthening some Blue Line station platforms to move from two-car to three-car trains. The expansion projects were completed in 2010, and just this year, Metro began taking delivery of 12 additional Siemens Type II light rail vehicles to operate all three-car trains on the Blue Line for peak periods and special events.
“The vehicles were bought as an option from our contract with Siemens for the Green Line vehicles,” says Ed Byers, Metro Transit’s deputy chief, operations, for rail. “We ordered 59 total — 47 for the Green Line and 12 for the Blue Line.”