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The Route 21 bus lurches along Lake Street in south Minneapolis at a snail’s pace. Today, Metro Transit’s second-busiest route is also its slowest, moving at an average of 8 mph as it struggles to merge in and out of frequent stops along the crowded street. A late morning ride from the Uptown Transit Station across the Mississippi River to St. Paul takes about 35 minutes.
Along the way, a diverse group of riders board and settle into felt-covered seats, chatting in English, Spanish and Somali.
Fortunately for those riders, improvements are coming to the Route 21 corridor. By 2024 it will largely be replaced by the B Line, an arterial bus rapid transit system that will connect South Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul via Lake Street and Marshall and Selby Avenues. The B Line is part of an ambitious expansion of Metro Transit’s bus rapid transit system that could be a force in combating the climate crisis and addressing racial disparities in the Twin Cities.
“Improved transit generally is a major force for racial justice and shrinking equality gaps,” Sam Rockwell, executive director of the transportation nonprofit Move Minnesota told Sahan Journal.
Bus Rapid Transit offers several benefits that proponents say make the ride faster and more comfortable. Riders pay before boarding, and can enter and exit buses through all doors. Stations are more developed and are farther apart than standard bus lines. Buses are often synchronized with traffic signals to get more green lights. The routes are more consistent than typical buses, running every 10 minutes, even on nights and weekends.
The Twin Cities bus rapid transit system currently consists of two arterial routes: The A Line mostly runs along Snelling Avenue in St. Paul; the C Line connects Brooklyn Center to Downtown Minneapolis via Penn Avenue on the northside. The A Line and C Line both saw immediate 30 percent ridership boosts in their respective corridors after opening, according to Metro Transit.
A third route, the Red Line, links Apple Valley Transit Station to the Mall of America in the South Metro.
Two new arterial bus rapid transit routes, the B and D Lines, were given full funding by the Minnesota bonding bill in October 2020. In addition, the state’s first major highway bus rapid transit route, the Orange Line, will start service in late 2021. The commuter line will connect Downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville on Interstate 35-W.
The B and D Lines will be on the most-used bus routes in Minnesota, which also serve some of the state’s most diverse populations, according to a Move Minnesota study. Route 5 is the state’s busiest bus line, and 65 percent of its riders are non-white; Route 21’s ridership is 48 percent people of color. Metro Transit riders are 44 percent people of color system wide.
Speed improvements from bus rapid transit aim to improve ride speed by 20 percent, which could save riders of the B and D lines a collective one million hours per year, Move Minnesota found.
The D Line will serve the current Route 5 corridor, connecting the Brooklyn Center Transit Center to the Mall of America along Fremont Avenue in north Minneapolis and Chicago and Portland avenues on the southside. Construction is scheduled to begin this spring, with service beginning in 2022.
The B Line, which would connect the future West Lake Street Green Line Station to Union Station in St. Paul, is in its final planning phase. The line would serve as a major link between transit services, with connections to the existing Blue Line, Green Line and A Line, and planned routes for the D Line, E Line, Green Line extension and Orange Line.
Metro Transit is seeking feedback on its final station locations. Riders can access fact sheets and submit comments in English, Hmong, Spanish and Somali. Construction is planned for 2023 with service by 2024, according to Metro Transit.
Electric bus debate
The main environmental benefit from reliable mass transit is a reduction in personal vehicle use by riders, but how the buses are fueled also plays a role.
The C Line debuted in 2019 with the network’s first electric buses. Produced by New Flyer in St. Cloud, the buses excited environmentalists and were embraced by central Minnesota officials eager for jobs. In 2018, Metro Transit announced it intended to move toward buying only new electric buses by 2022.
But on March 10, the Metropolitan Council is set to vote on a $121 million order for 143 new biodiesel-fueled buses, including 63 vehicles that will serve as the initial fleet of the B, D and Orange Lines.
That news didn’t sit well with many Democrat leaders at the Minnesota House of Representatives, including the capital investment committee chair Representative Fue Lee (DFL-Minneapolis), who said he would be working with other legislative leaders to ask the Met Council to pursue electric buses.
Lee, a Hmong-American representing north Minneapolis, has also introduced two related bills this session. One would require Metro Transit to purchase electric buses and contribute state dollars to cover the cost. The second would direct Metro Transit to coordinate with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to identify neighborhoods with poor air quality and place the cleanest buses along those routes.
“I want to take some steps forward to protect our most vulnerable communities,” Lee told Sahan Journal.
Metro Transit said it is committed to continuing to add electric buses long term. But the agency feels the technology will not work well for new bus rapid transit lines, and is stepping back from its 2018 commitment. The C Line, where the current electric fleet runs, is a shorter, 17-mile round-trip route. Each bus has a battery range of about 100 miles, and the buses receive supplemental rapid charging boosts at Brooklyn Center Transit Station to keep them running throughout the day. The B and D lines will be longer and Metro Transit doesn’t feel electric buses will be effective options.
The electric buses have had occasional reliability problems. On March 2, all eight had to be pulled out for service work after a charging issue, Metro Transit spokesperson Laura Baenen told Sahan Journal.
“We’re not quitting on electric buses,” Baenen said.
Expanding the system
No matter how bus rapid transit lines are powered, it’s clear that Metro Transit believes expanding the network is key to making the Twin Cities less car dependent.
Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, according to the Pollution Control Agency. Emissions from vehicles have only fallen 7 percent since 2005 and pollution from traffic has a disproportionate impact on residents of color.
“These corridors are disproportionately corridors with large communities of color,” Rockwell said. “By providing alternatives to car travel we are reducing particulate emissions in those areas.”
Metro Transit is mapping future bus rapid transit routes with goals to advance equity and reduce racial disparities in the region, according to program director Charles Carlson. Three new proposed routes were selected in February: The F Line, connecting northeast Minneapolis to Anoka County on Central Avenue; the G Line, linking Little Canada with West St. Paul on Rice and Robert streets; and the H Line, running from downtown Minneapolis to Sun Ray Transit Center in St. Paul along Como and Maryland avenues.
Columbia Heights Mayor Amáda Márquez-Simula, the city’s first mayor of color, lobbied state legislators to fund these new routes. She said interest in bus rapid transit is high among residents of color in her city. Adding the F Line, she told state representatives would help meet climate and racial equality goals. “I am very concerned, as are my constituents, about climate change. There will be so many pollutant streams removed from the air and the ground if we can go to electric busing,” she said.
An additional planned arterial service, the E Line, would link the University of Minnesota to Southdale Center in Edina through downtown and uptown Minneapolis along Hennepin Avenue using the current Route 6 corridor. Minnesota Democrats are pushing to secure $60 million in state dollars to fully fund the project.
If all planned lines are completed, the fast service network of light-rail and bus rapid transit would serve 46 percent of the region’s residents of color , 47 percent of low-income residents and 60 percent of renters while connecting riders to 44 percent of the region’s jobs, Carlson said.