Alma Montgomery, of Bloomington, doesn't own a car and relies on public transportation to get around. She often takes the Orange Line, which began bus rapid transit (BRT) service along Interstate 35W between downtown Minneapolis and Burnsville in December 2021.
"I like it," she said one recent afternoon. "But I wish it was more frequent, especially on the weekends."
Metro Transit officials would like more bus service, too. Not just on the $150 million Orange Line, which serves one of the busiest transportation corridors in the state, but throughout the metro area — where at least a dozen more BRT lines are planned or under construction, through 2035.
That goal was highlighted last week when federal officials announced $239 million in funding for the Gold Line — the Twin Cities' first BRT line that will mostly operate on a dedicated lane between downtown St. Paul and Woodbury.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has waned, public transportation has slowly returned, but not to levels seen before the outbreak. Ridership on Metro Transit buses and trains remains a little more than half of what it was before 2020.
Overall BRT ridership in the Twin Cities has proven to be fairly resilient, increasing 43% from 2021 to 2022. The exception appears to be Red Line BRT service between the Mall of America and Apple Valley, which lost about half its ridership during the pandemic.
Nuria Fernandez, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), said at last week's Gold Line ceremony that bus ridership has bounced back nicely across the country. With remote work, she said, "people are now using systems at different times. [Transit] agencies need to figure out new ways to capture that base ridership."
After more than a year of operation, the Orange Line highlights a new paradigm in public transit: the fading of traditional morning and afternoon rush hours.
"People may not be working 8 to 5 every single day, they may be working part of the day or only certain days of the week," said Adam Harrington, Metro Transit's director of service development. "The Orange Line really provides a great opportunity to still ride transit, because that service is there in the middle of the day and on weekends."
Ridership on Route 535, which the Orange Line replaced, was about 1,500 to 1,600 on weekdays until COVID struck in the spring of 2020. In the past eight months, Orange Line ridership has been about 1,000 on weekdays, according to Metro Transit.
When the Orange Line began service in late 2021, buses were supposed to run every 15 minutes on weekdays with service every half-hour on weekends and at night. But faced with a shortage of bus operators, Metro Transit cut the frequency of service and now offers 15-minute service only during the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. morning peak and afternoon rush hour between 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., with 30-minute service the rest of the day.
Harrington said he's hopeful that additional service can be restored once more drivers are brought on board. Metro Transit has hired 125 operators since the start of the year but is still short about 200 drivers, according to spokesman Drew Kerr.
Chris Van Eyken, research and policy director for the New York-based foundation TransitCenter, said cutting service "will lead to ridership declines because service is less reliable. You need to give riders a chance to build their [transit] habits."
The pandemic also highlighted crime and other issues that discourage people from taking public transportation, such as drug and alcohol use, as well as homelessness. The Orange Line hasn't been spared in that regard.
Between Jan. 1, 2022, and March 31 this year, there were 427 serious crimes reported across Metro Transit's BRT system. Of those, 135 serious crimes were reported on the Orange Line, with drug violations and vandalism being the most frequent offenses.
Harrington conceded that it's a "constant effort" to maintain some Orange Line stations, including those along I-35W at 46th Street and Lake Street in south Minneapolis.
In one particularly tragic incident, a 31-year-old St. Paul man died of a fentanyl overdose at the 46th Street Station last September, according to a police report. He laid down in the station's upper lobby at about 9:30 a.m. and remained there for more than six hours before police were called.
A shooting occurred Friday at the Lake Street Station, resulting in two adults transported to HCMC with gunshot wounds. They were reported to be in stable condition later Friday. Police believed there were multiple shooters, and an investigation was ongoing.
There were 89 less-serious offenses on the Orange Line since January 2022, including trespassing and disorderly conduct that can also depress ridership numbers.