Tucked in the fine print of a nearly $2 billion bonding bill signed by Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday was a $55 million commitment to two rapid bus lines in the metro area — a hard-fought and rare win for public transit.
“I jumped for joy,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley, whose district will be served by the upgraded lines. “It’s about time.”
The B and D arterial bus rapid transit projects will significantly improve the busiest — and slowest — transit corridors in the state. And both serve some of the most diverse areas of the Twin Cities.
The Metropolitan Council has lobbied state lawmakers to fund the D Line, in particular, for at least two years — to no avail. The $75 million line, now the Route 5 local bus route, will connect the Brooklyn Center Transit Center to the Mall of America, through north and south Minneapolis, Richfield and Bloomington. Service will begin in late 2022.
The B Line will largely replace Route 21 local bus service, among the slowest in Metro Transit’s system linking Uptown to Union Depot in St. Paul. With a price tag of $55 million to $65 million, the B Line is expected to begin service in 2024.
“This is very significant,” said Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, whose constituents will be served by the B Line. “Many people don’t have access to any other transportation.”
Arterial bus rapid transit is sometimes called “BRT-Lite,” offering a passenger experience similar to light rail, but far cheaper to build.
Stations are heated and spaced farther apart to promote a speedier ride. Passengers pay before boarding, and buses have signal prioritization at intersections.
But the lines do not have a dedicated lane solely for buses, and they operate in traffic on city thoroughfares. So they can be susceptible to traffic jams and potholed streets.
The council is planning up to 16 rapid bus lines throughout the Twin Cities by 2040. The metro’s first rapid bus, the A Line, debuted in 2016, connecting the 46th St. Blue Line LRT station in Minneapolis to Rosedale Center, largely along busy Snelling Avenue in St. Paul.
A big hit with riders, the A Line was soon followed by the C Line, connecting downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Center, along Penn Avenue on the city’s North Side. Several buses in the C Lines fleet are electric — which are quieter and environmentally friendly — a first for Metro Transit.
A fifth rapid bus project, the E Line, would connect the University of Minnesota to Southdale, mostly along Hennepin Avenue. Leftover bonding money from the B and D Line projects, if there is any, will help fuel the E Line.
Despite their popularity, rapid bus lines have failed to attract state funding support in recent years, particularly from Republicans in greater Minnesota.
“Bus rapid transit was never something the Republicans opposed as a mode,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee. But “they clearly prefer it over rail.”
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said he generally supports funding for rapid bus lines, which he sees as more efficient and cost-effective than light rail.
The B and D Lines “are part of a real success story in showing the kind of transitways that can be delivered relatively quickly and have a positive impact right away,” said Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle. This year, “they were positioned at the right time.”
Also this year, a coalition of rapid bus supporters — from businesses to community and environmental groups — pushed the projects at the Capitol.
The coalition emphasized that the D and B lines provide service to areas, including Chicago Avenue and Lake Street, that were hard hit in the unrest that followed George Floyd’s death. Funding them, they argued, would promote racial equity and economic development there.
Plus, the council was able to capitalize on the “success of the A and C Lines,” said Will Schroeer, executive director of East Metro Strong, a transit advocacy group. “People just keep using these lines, especially during the pandemic.”
Zelle said rapid bus lines “have more bipartisan support. People recognize their value; they’re the backbone of the system.”