This is a guest post by a Minneapolis resident and planner who has recently begun using the new 46th Street “online” transit station to commute to and from work. The opinions expressed here are solely his or her own, and do not reflect those of his or her employer.
Monday morning I tried out the new I-35W and 46th Street Station, on opening day of the bus stop in the median of the freeway beneath the 46th Street bridge. The station was constructed at the same time as the major Crosstown Commons project, and is expected to serve future bus rapid transit (BRT) routes on 35W and Highway 77. For now, it’s the only one of its kind in the Twin Cities transit system. Passengers walk down stairs or take an elevator in one of two towers from the bridge deck down to freeway level, where buses traveling on the freeway’s new high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes can quickly pull over without completely exiting the freeway.
I live about one-half mile from the station, so I checked the bus schedule (using Metro Transit’s web site; unfortunately the new station does not yet appear on Google Maps) and walked to the station via Nicollet Avenue. I left the house 15 minutes before the scheduled arrival time. My usual limited-stop bus to downtown Minneapolis is about a three minute walk, and most people in my neighborhood already have this convenient option available.
When I arrived at the 46th Street bridge I noticed the NextTrip signs had yet to be turned on. These are the electronic message boards that provide real-time arrival/departure information like at the airport. I entered the enclosed elevator tower on the north side of the bridge and took the stairs down to freeway level. It was nice and warm in the building, and there was a functioning NexTrip monitor, but a Metro Transit staffer advised passengers not to wait there because if the bus approached you could easily miss it. I opted to wait outside. Despite a good effort by Metro Transit to market the station’s opening day, including mailings to nearby households and lots of free media attention, I thought I would be alone on the platform. I wasn’t. There were maybe 20 people waiting for the bus. About half were headed to the University of Minnesota and the other half were headed downtown. I wasn’t surprised to see the University students, given that service changes taking effect that day required them to transfer at the new station. The downtown-bound passengers, however, puzzled me because the surrounding neighborhoods all have convenient and fast limited-stop service within easy walking distance of most homes. I would have asked some people why they chose to use the station rather than a more convenient alternative, but it was too noisy. We were standing in the median of a ten-lane urban Interstate highway, after all.
The bus arrived a minute or two late (not bad), the seats already full from picking up suburban passengers. After entering the freeway in the left-hand HOT lane, the bus had to immediately cross the remaining four congested traffic lanes to make the right-hand exit to the Lake Street bus stop. The driver and some passengers were audibly grumbling at this inconvenience, which probably eliminates any travel time reductions gained by not having to fully exit the freeway at 46th Street. It’s temporary, of course, until design is complete and funding secured to move the Lake Street stop from the right lane to the left lane, but it’s one reason among many to question whether the benefits of the first $5 million BRT station outweigh the costs.
From my perspective, 35W BRT is attempting to fill a gap that doesn’t exist. We already have very good suburban express service, which has been an important factor in increased transit ridership in recent years. We also have excellent limited-stop service for commuters from close-in neighborhoods like mine. Freeway BRT doesn’t add value for customers of either service and I’m skeptical that it will do much to attract new riders. For me, it turned out to be a wash in terms of door-to-door travel time between my neighborhood limited-stop bus and the freeway-only route. It was simply a tradeoff between bus time and walking time. One of the purported benefits of the new station is that it allows Metro Transit to provide better service for reverse commuters from the neighborhood, but so far those options are limited. Such service requires more operating dollars, not more infrastructure.
Hopefully the momentum for bus improvements will shift from high-cost low-value projects like this to more innovative solutions like arterial BRT, which the Metropolitan Council is beginning to study for corridors like Nicollet and Chicago Avenues. Arterial BRT would supplement local routes with faster service that stops less frequently and takes advantage of technology such as signal priority and proof-of-payment fare systems. This solution seems to have much more potential to increase ridership than freeway BRT.