The section of Interstate 35W between Minneapolis and the southern suburbs of the subway has long been the busiest suburban corridor in the state. Improving the bus service along the artery has been the subject of discussion for decades, with little interest.
But on Saturday, service began on the Orange Line, a $ 150 million bus rapid transit (BRT) project that connects downtown Minneapolis and Burnsville via Richfield and Bloomington, almost entirely along the I -35W.
“The investment we’re making here is generational,” Governor Tim Walz said at a cold ceremony in Minneapolis to mark the highway’s opening on Saturday. “It’s not just a bus line; we connect communities. “
The 17-mile line debuts at a time when infrastructure is a priority for transit planners and lawmakers after President Joe Biden signed a $ 1,000 billion infrastructure bill last month dollars supporting public transportation and other projects nationwide. Future BRT projects planned in the Twin Cities, including the Gold and Purple lines, could benefit from massive funding in the years to come.
While the $ 74 million the Orange Line received from the federal government was not part of this infrastructure largesse, Biden touted the project during his trip last week to the Twin Cities.
“It will change things,” he said.
But its launch comes as the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to remote working that followed dramatically reduced ridership on public transport – especially the suburban routes that traditionally transported suburban office workers to cities. downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Charles Carlson, BRT project manager for Metro Transit, said the Orange Line’s all-day service will adapt to a new ridership paradigm emerging in the wake of the pandemic.
“What we’ve seen during the pandemic is the power of all-purpose travel,” Carlson said. “Although there has been a reduction in the number of people going to the office during the morning and afternoon rush hours, we are focusing on all kinds of trips, whether it’s shopping , school, medical appointments. “
Orange Line buses will run every 15 minutes on weekdays, with a 30-minute service on weekends and nights, seven days a week. One-way trips are expected to take 38 minutes south and 34 minutes north.
Buses will use the E-ZPasslanes for multiple occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on I-35W and the Marquette and 2nd Avenue transit lanes in downtown Minneapolis, and will have signal priority at most intersections .
Diesel buses have three doors. Passengers must pay before boarding, which avoids queues at the counter. The line’s 12 stations, which are heated, have security cameras and real-time schedule information.
When asked about potential ridership, Carlson noted that there were about 14,000 daily bus passengers on the I-35W before the pandemic.
The line’s new $ 20 million Lake Street station, which opened in October, is a centerpiece of the project. Much awaited by public transit users, it replaces a dilapidated bus stop bordering the highway and the dangerous steps that lead to it from Lake Street.
Metropolitan Council member Robert Lilligren said he remembered going up the stairs years ago and encountering a giant snowbank there. A pair of winter boots were frozen in the mound of ice, “like someone lost them when they jumped on the bus. Now look what we have here.”
Construction of the station dovetailed with MnDOT’s $ 240 million overhaul project between Crosstown and Downtown along I-35W that was completed this fall.
“This is a transformative improvement in access,” Carlson said of the Lake Street station. “When the highway was built there was no access to this area which was convenient and useful.”
Perhaps the greatest feat of engineering on the route is a tunnel under Interstate 494 where it intersects with I-35W along Knox Avenue. This will save 10 minutes in the line’s schedule, as buses won’t have to cross the busy I-494 at ground level near the Best Buy headquarters, and it includes lanes for pedestrians and the cyclists.
There are no immediate plans to extend the Orange Line, although there is talk of eventually extending the route to the Burnsville Center Mall.
“It all takes time,” said Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz. “It doesn’t happen overnight.