Tim Harlow
See more of the story

Metro Transit is turning to solar energy to power real-time information signs as part of a test to see how screens resembling iPads or e-readers perform in Minnesota's punishing weather conditions.

Tablet-sized screens affixed to a sign pole and connected to a solar panel were installed last year at SE. 15th and Como avenues and 13th and Franklin avenues in Minneapolis. Two more went in last week, one at SE. 15th and University avenues and on southbound Nicollet Avenue at Franklin.

Cellular modems transmit data to the screens, which list arrival times for the next buses scheduled to serve the stop. Test sites with dual screens also display route maps and could flash alerts that tell passengers when buses are detoured due to construction or other reasons.

"We are excited to test them and see how it works," said Jacob Brown, Metro Transit's assistant manager for Transit Information. "It's an effort to see what options we have for real-time signs. We put in a lot of investment into real-time programming."

The sleek signs cost between $3,500 to $5,000 to install, but that's much cheaper than the larger video-screen type signs that appear at transit stations, light-rail platforms and at stops along the A and C rapid bus lines. Those video monitors can cost as much as $20,000, Brown said.

The four test locations were chosen because they have a large number of passengers boarding and have enough sunlight to power the screens, Brown said. They also were chosen because the bus stops are in neighborhoods where traditional digital signs are impractical because of their size and making electricity and network connections would be difficult, Brown said.

Minneapolis joins cities such as Seattle, Portland and Boston, which also are testing similar technology. And here, so far, so good, Brown said. The units have had enough sun — it only takes 2 hours of sunlight a day to fully charge the batteries — and have withstood minus 20-degree temperatures.

"We have had no issue losing power or going off line," Brown said.

If that were to happen, riders will see a static display showing a small route map and a full schedule for buses serving the stop, Brown said.

The plan is to test the signs for a year, evaluate their performance and collect feedback from riders. Then the agency will decide if it will deploy more, Brown said.

Parkway speed limits drop

Motorists using Minneapolis parkways will have to start driving slower as speed limits are dropping from 25 mph to 20 mph. The change began last week.

Crews installed new speed limit signs on portions of Kenwood Parkway and will switch out signs across the city over the next few months. Drivers should follow the posted speed limit as the new signs go up, the park board said.

The reduction follows Park Board commissioners' vote in November to lower parkway speed limits to match the 20 mph limit on local Minneapolis streets.