"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.”[PAGEBREAK]
The Northstar commuter rail line is a 40-mile system that runs from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis at Target Field. It uses existing track and right-of-way owned by the BNSF Railway, which operates the system.
The commuter line was launched in late 2009 during the economic downturn.
“It is strictly a commuter line — we have five trips inbound in the morning and five outbound in the evening with one reverse commute trip each way,” Byers, explains. “Initially, we had excellent ridership, but at the end of the first full year, we found ourselves 20% lower than projections. Ridership was flat in 2011 and trending below expectations for 2012.”
To combat this, Metro Transit reduced fares by $1 in August 2012. The reduction and the opening of a new station in Ramsey, which is exceeding initial projections, have resulted in a 15.1% ridership increase at the halfway point of 2013.
While one of the benefits of the system is transporting fans to sporting events, Byers says ridership has waned over the last couple of years due to lower attendance at Twins games compared to the sold out 2010 inaugural season at Target Field. He also adds that since the line ties into the bus system and Blue Line, it is dramatically growing as an option for the weekday commuter, especially during periods of inclement weather.
“When we have days with snowstorms or anything that is going to impact traffic, we see big spikes in ridership, because people know how reliable it is,” Byers says. “So, instead of spending upwards of two hours on freeways battling their way into the central business district, people choose a Northstar train, which gets them downtown in less than 50 minutes.”
Set to open in mid-2014, with construction currently 95% complete, the 11-mile METRO Green Line will connect the downtown areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul and travel through the University of Minnesota. The line marks the return of rail to the corridor for the first time since the early 1950s, when streetcar lines that had run along University Avenue were paved over. The old tracks remained beneath the center median pavement until 2012 when they were excavated and removed for the new line, says Laura Baenen, communications manager for the light rail project.
“University Avenue, the primary local street connection, has been rebuilt,” she says. “It was interesting to see the construction of it, because there were many layers of strata from the previous roadway. If you were visiting today, you would see stations that are substantially complete, with some of the systems work, ticket vending machines and other technologies still needing to be added, but it is looking nearly complete.”
A good amount of the overhead catenary wire has also already been strung, and testing of the line has begun both with trains towed the length of the line and some tests on a shorter powered section. In anticipation of additional integrated testing later this year, public safety messaging is also changing.
“Our current safety campaign warns the public about being around the stations and tracks while they are being constructed,” Baenen explains. “As we ramp up preparing for revenue service in the middle of 2014, we are pivoting the message to let people know that there will be test trains running on these tracks.”
As mentioned earlier, the Green Line will carry passengers on 47 new Siemens light rail transit vehicles, each with 66 seats and comfortable standing room for an additional 70 people.
Passengers will access the Green Line via 18 new stations, plus five stations shared with the Blue Line in downtown Minneapolis. It connects with the Blue Line at the Metrodome Station and its western terminus is at the Minneapolis multimodal station that will also serve the Northstar commuter rail line. Trains will operate every 10 minutes during peak travel periods, with a travel time of 39 minutes between downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis.
Siqveland says the success of the Blue Line has had a major impact on the growth of public transportation in the area.
“Had the Blue Line either not have happened or been such a success, the path forward to implement the Northstar and Green Line system certainly would have been far more challenging,” he says. “Truly, the success and growth of that line has allowed many in the Twin Cities to experience the value of rail — how convenient it is, how well it works — which has served as a catalyst for advancing other projects.”[PAGEBREAK]
Bus rapid transit system
Metro Transit continues its growth even beyond its rail system, with several projects in the works, including the planned Orange Line BRT system on I-35W and the transformation of 12 urban corridors with high ridership bus routes into rapid bus lines over the next decade.
In late June, the region launched another important color-themed BRT line, the 16-mile METRO Red Line, which operates along Cedar Avenue and Highway 77 from Apple Valley to the Mall of America — the southern terminus of the Blue Line. The Red Line offers 15-minute service for most of each weekday and 30-minute service during weekends.
The Red Line runs through some of the fastest-growing areas in the metropolitan area, with traffic volumes on Cedar Avenue exceeding 100,000 vehicles a day at the Minnesota River Bridge on any given morning.
Like many BRT systems around the nation, the METRO Red Line is patterned after light rail. It features transit stations with accessible platforms; enhanced lighting for safety and visibility; better enclosures and protection from the elements; NexTrip signs that display real-time bus arrival information; surveillance cameras for safety; and ticket machines where riders can add value to their Go-To smart card.
“It’s encouraging to see solid METRO Red Line ridership during these first weeks of service,” says Siqveland. “This is a strong corridor for commuters, and these early figures illustrate the additional demand for frequent, all-day service, which the Red Line also provides.”
Following three weeks of service, customers boarded Red Line buses an average of 798 times each weekday and 450 times on weekends. Average weekday ridership is forecast to reach 975 after the first full year of service, growing to 1,600 in 2017.
Metro Transit is also working on the METRO Orange Line BRT, which will run between downtown Minneapolis, Richfield, Bloomington and Burnsville. The Orange Line will use roadway improvements, upgraded transit stations, Park & Ride facilities and improved bus routes to provide fast, frequent and reliable all-day service along I-35W. The 16-mile corridor has been the most heavily-traveled express bus corridor since the 1970s, with about 14,000 daily rides.
Charles Carlson, senior manager of Metro’s BRT/Small Starts program says, “We had an opportunity in 2010 to build out the first inline station for that service as part of an interchange project that the Minnesota Department of Transportation was undertaking at I-35W and Highway 62. That station is essentially a precursor for how we intend to do highway BRT in that corridor.”
Throughout the corridor, buses will travel on the inside lane of the freeway with a combination of median stations that use vertical circulation to connect with local streets and inline stations on freeway ramps. At Lake Street, where buses will travel overhead on I-35W, a new two-story transit station, plaza and trail connection will allow passengers to easily access the neighborhood. The Orange Line is planned to open for service by 2019.
Perhaps Metro Transit’s most ambitious project is its 12-line rapid bus program, a result of the 2011 Arterial Transitway Corridors Study (ATCS) — a year-long study of improvements along some of the most heavily traveled transit corridors in the Twin Cities area.
The goal of the ATCS was to develop a bus facility and service plan to enhance efficiency, speed, reliability, customer experience and transit market competitiveness on 12 high-demand urban transitway corridors, prioritizing them for BRT implementation.
The first corridor to begin development is on Snelling Avenue — a north-south route connecting the suburbs of Roseville and Falcon Heights to St. Paul and stretching over to the Blue Line in Minneapolis. The A Line, as it will be known, is planned to launch in 2015.
“It’s a good first line for many reasons, not least among them, it will connect both the Blue Line and Green Line in a way those corridors have never been connected before,” Carlson adds.
Throughout the development, road lanes will not change but will rather be improved to enable buses to move more quickly in traffic, while signal priority and pre-boarding payment will help minimize delays and increase speeds. Substantial weather-protected stations will provide a higher level of comfort and convenience for customers, with ticket machines, NexTrip real-time bus arrival signs, security cameras and emergency phones on platforms.
"Once the A Line is complete, the goal is to open one of these 12 corridors every year,” Carlson says. “When all of these lines are eventually built out over that decade or so, we will be able to provide a new level of connectivity between those most heavily-ridden metro routes and these still growing urban corridors.”
For a Q&A with GM Brian Lamb, click here.