Bus Expansion Is a Route to Opportunity

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By Hilary Reeves, Strategic Advancement & Communications Director

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Improvements to Route 18 are on Metro Transit’s high-priority list. If their plan is put into action, bus riders could see more frequent service and longer service hours, including late night and early morning trips to better serve people with nontraditional work shifts. 

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Metro Transit’s Route 4 is full on a Saturday for its regular run from New Brighton to Richfield. On a Friday afternoon, Route 53 is full too. It runs a very limited schedule—one-way from Uptown to Saint Paul in the morning and one-way back again in the evening. These are just two of more than 100 bus routes that could see expanded service in the Twin Cities metro.

A Metro Transit plan, approved by the Metropolitan Council this year, marks the first time in a long while our region has had a plan for substantially expanding bus service. In fact, even as the region has added light rail and highway bus rapid transit, regular route bus service—the workhorse of the system—hasn’t had a significant increase in a decade.

Metro Transit developed the Service Improvement Plan (SIP) with substantial community engagement. They held a number of meetings to hear from riders about service issues. And they explained the basic facts regarding service planning.

The resulting plan includes more than 100 routes and calls for specific steps to increase frequency, provide longer service hours, extend routes, add weekend service, and add new routes. Several routes are slated to have service overnight, “to accommodate non-traditional work start times all days per week.” The plan also includes 11 arterial bus rapid transit routes and would add more buses on many express routes. For example, the 675 would run every 30 minutes to Ridgedale and would have new weekend service to Mound.

Needless to say, Transit for Livable Communities is excited about this plan for better bus service and we want to see it funded and implemented. What’s needed to make that happen?

• Enacting the SIP would require an additional $67 million per year to pay for increased operating costs. This amount of money would enable Metro Transit to go ahead with every High and Medium priority route identified in the plan.

• To expand service, Metro Transit also needs capital funds to construct another garage—because you can’t run more buses if you don’t have a place to park them and take care of them. Saint Paul Public Schools found this out earlier this year when the plan to use Metro Transit buses for high school students’ transportation to school came to a sudden halt due to lack of garage space.

The 2016 legislature, which convenes in March, could—and should—act to fund additional bus service and to include a new bus garage in a bonding bill. Transit for Livable Communities will continue to push for a comprehensive, multimodal transportation funding solution for the region and the state. But within that effort, we’re also raising awareness about the need to finally put more money toward the bus!

Why more bus service?

As the adopted plan notes, “SIP projects are projected to generate 28.7 million new rides per year when fully implemented. This represents an approximately 42 percent increase over current annual Metro Transit [bus] ridership.”

The numbers are exciting. However, the real urgency comes from the fact that today’s bus system leaves too many people struggling to get where they need to go, with a significant mismatch between available service and jobs. The stories come to mind very easily.

• I remember a couple of years ago talking to a woman who worked in downtown Saint Paul and lived in New Brighton. Her shift ended at 11 p.m. She then spent two hours getting home, including having to walk the last mile because her bus ran a shorter route in the middle of the night. She had no problem getting to work for a 3 p.m. shift start, but getting home was exhausting, especially when she also wanted to get up the next morning to see her son off to school.

• Earlier this year, I talked to another woman with a mismatch of work shift and bus schedules. She was also trying to figure out a way to get home from a shift ending at 10 p.m.

• I also remember talking to a man who was living in Mendota Heights, but had to move because bus service was too limited. He had been driving but his car failed. The second time he paid to repair it, he realized he needed to find another way. Buses from his area only ran a few times in the early morning and again around evening rush hour. His job didn’t line up that way.

Expanding bus service can change the game in terms of access to jobs. Here’s an example: When the Green Line opened in 2014, several changes in bus service happened at the same time. Routes were added or frequencies increased on existing routes, so that communities north and south of the line would have more regular, consistent, convenient bus connections to the Green Line. A year after the line opened, a University of Minnesota study found that the LRT and bus combination had put 2,000 more jobs within reach of a 30-minute transit commute.

But without funding for bus service, that scenario won’t happen again. If the region moves ahead with the Green Line extension to the southwest, the Blue Line extension to the northwest, the Gold Line bus rapid transit in the east metro and the Riverview Corridor in Saint Paul, those lines won’t reach their full potential if there is not strong connecting bus service. More importantly, people will be stranded, unable to get to jobs and opportunity.

Let’s turn that scenario around. Let’s raise our voices for better bus service in the Twin Cities region.

To support TLC’s work on this critical issue, consider making a year-end gift now and stay tuned for more action in coming months!