By 2023 or 2024, one of St. Paul’s busiest bus routes will get a major upgrade.
The new $1.9 billion state bonding bill completes funding for two new Bus Rapid Transit lines that will be constructed in the metro, including a Lake Street/Marshall/Selby Avenue route from Uptown Minneapolis into downtown St. Paul.
The Metro Transit D Line is expected to begin service between the Mall of America in Bloomington to Brooklyn Center in late 2022 and the B Line from West Lake Street to the downtown St. Paul Union Depot will follow about a year later.
The lines, which will cost $75 million and $61 million to construct and outfit respectively, will share a $55 million boost from the bonding bill recently approved by the state Legislature. The D Line will receive $20 million and the B Line will receive $35 million.
“These have been planned. They’re ready to go. We have all the funding in place now,” said Charlie Zelle, chair of the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency that oversees Metro Transit.
Previous Bus Rapid Transit lines rolled out on Snelling Avenue in 2016 and between Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center in 2019, and both services have drawn more customers than traditional local service.
Since their capital funding, state backing for new public transit has been elusive. Most of the money for the Southwest Transit Line is provided by the federal government or Hennepin County, Zelle noted.
“This is state funding for really critical transitways and we haven’t had state (transit construction) funding for some time,” Zelle said.
A HIGHER QUALITY RIDE
The B Line will follow the same general path as the Route 21 bus, traveling Lake Street, Marshall Avenue and then Selby Avenue into downtown St. Paul. Traditional local service will also continue with schedule changes. Otherwise, the differences in quality will be pronounced.
Like the A Line, which serves Ford Parkway and Snelling Avenue, the B Line will stop every three or four blocks or more, far fewer stops than a traditional local bus route. That’s one of several factors that make for a quicker ride.
Fares will be prepaid at heated transit shelters with electronic signage, arrival announcements and other amenities, allowing for rapid boarding. BRT vehicles are roomier than traditional buses and they receive preference at traffic signals.
“I really think it’s the future of transit,” Zelle said. “It gives people confidence they can use public transit and not wait around an hour. Every 10 minutes, you can count on the B Line coming by, and that’s really important for transit in this day and age.”
The two new BRT lines will both service a station at Chicago Avenue and Lake Street, an area heavily impacted by riots and protests following the death of George Floyd in May.
The station is situated near Abbott Northwestern Hospital and the Midtown Exchange building, home to several floors of rental housing and the ethnically-diverse Midtown Global Market.
The D Line will also travel through North Minneapolis, an area with high unemployment.
“These are areas that need economic recovery,” Zelle said. “It’s really an equity investment. Where we build transitways, it certainly stimulates economic development and real estate development.”
By the time the two lines are up and running, Zelle expects plans will be moving forward for the E Line — the BRT route that will closely shadow the Route 6 corridor from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis to Southdale, with stops at University Avenue/4th Street, Hennepin Avenue and France Avenue.
Ideally, he’d like to see a new BRT project going into the ground annually. “We’re coming close to having that kind of rhythm,” he said.
Zelle, chairman of the Jefferson Lines bus company and a former Minnesota Department of Transportation commissioner, was appointed chair of the Met Council by DFL Gov. Tim Walz in January. He shared the following remarks on transit use in the pandemic era.
On public transit rides plummeting during the pandemic:
“It’s stark around the country. What’s really hit hard is the commuter service — suburbs to downtown. That’s down 95 percent. Our regular bus service is down 50 percent, which is a lot, but frankly we’re still carrying a lot of people.”
On customer safety precautions against COVID-19:
Zelle said transit vehicles have been outfitted with plastic shielding around drivers, among other virus precautions. Labor advocates, however, have called mask enforcement for customers lax and they say it’s alarming that more than 100 employees have contracted COVID-19 since March.
“We encourage distancing and require a mask,” Zelle said. “Early on, we were spending a lot of time giving away masks. People are wearing a mask, there’s a lot of ventilation, they’re not eating food and drinking wine.
“We’ve had some (employee infections), but we haven’t heard of any from customers. We’ve had positive cases, but we haven’t had any significant outbreaks.”
On labor issues:
Also of note, with concerns over COVID-19 as a backdrop, contract disputes with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 continue. After threatening to strike in September, the union — which represents 2,400 drivers, mechanics and others — recently convinced management to come back to the bargaining table for a single day.
“The other day, Metro Transit employees were at 115 who had contracted the virus” since March, said Ryan Timlin, president of ATU 1005. “It’s gone up since then. It’s spreading pretty rapidly.”
Negotiations are expected to focus on hazard pay, among other issues emblematic of the COVID-era.
“They were giving out overtime to get the fleet cleaned,” Timlin said. “Now they’re putting on more and more pressure to get the fleet cleaned during regular hours, which is really over-stretching mechanics, cleaners and helpers.”
Both sides are scheduled to meet with the Bureau of Mediation Services in St. Paul on Monday. If that doesn’t go well, expect some level of labor awareness actions in November and December, though not necessarily a full strike.
“We’ll be looking at doing different things over the month,” Timlin said.
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