BY JOHN CHARLES WILSON
This is the 50th year since public ownership of transit began in the Twin Cities. As such, I find it appropriate to go over the past decades and how the MTC (later MCTO and finally Metro Transit) has performed, and what should be in store in the next decade.
The 1970s were a decade of optimism. After buying out Twin City Lines, the Metropolitan Transit Commission went to work making a lot of improvements, expanding service to more suburbs, starting Park and Ride service (mostly by contracting with mall and churches for excess parking lot space), and trying to unify the service by buying out independent suburban bus companies and reaching transfer agreements with those whose owners didn’t want to sell right away.
The 1990s were the decade of false hope. Improvements were promised but those that were delivered were quite feeble. The fare was lowered once, then increased several times. The age limit for the youth discount was lowered from 17 to 13 to discourage ridership among loud and boisterous teenagers, mostly on routes to and from the Mall of America. Light rail was talked about, and talked about, and talked about, but no one really believed it would be built.
The 2000s were the decade of light rail and commuter rail. The first real transit improvement since the 1970s was the creation of the Hiawatha Line (now called the Blue Line), which opened 50 years after Twin City Lines abolished streetcars. The Northstar Line was our first commuter rail line since the streetcar era as well.
The 2010s were the decade of Bus Rapid Transit, a cheaper and easier-to-implement improvement than light rail. Considering the political controversy over light rail and commuter rail, I believe Bus Rapid Transit is the wave of the future, at least for the rest of my lifetime.
Like Janus, the mythical two-faced figure for whom January is named, I have looked back so I can look forward and see more clearly. So, what kinds of transit improvements do I advocate for the 2020s?
First and foremost, more Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines, please! Already in the works are BRT lines on Lake Street, Fremont Avenue North, Chicago Avenue South, and University/Hennepin/France Avenues from the U of M to Southdale. This is just a bare minimum of what we need. For the suburbs, BRT is also proposed along the I-94 frontage road from Saint Paul to Woodbury, along what is currently a bike trail from Saint Paul to White Bear Lake, and along I-35W from Minneapolis to Burnsville. I am a bit skeptical that there will be much ridership on the last three.
Second, streetcars in the Midtown Greenway. I am a little more skeptical about the proposed streetcar line on West 7th Street in Saint Paul.
We really need more buses on Route 4 (Lyndale Avenue South) at rush hour, and Route 10 (Central Avenue) pretty much at all times of day, including weekends. The absurd overcrowding on both of these lines is really a turn-off to public transit for the uninitiated.
At the risk of offending suburbanites, we need to go back to some zoned fare system. It is ridiculous to charge as much for riding a few blocks on an inner-city street as for an excursion to the shores of Lake Minnetonka.
The bike lane explosion in residential areas is great. Now we need bus lanes (Shout out to the Streets.mn blog for originating this one!) too, especially in downtown Minneapolis. The recent Hennepin Avenue experiment has been a success. Let’s build on it!
Ticket vending machines, already used at light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit stations, should be added to more major stops like the Chicago-Lake and Uptown Transit Centers. People should be encouraged to pay off-board to save time. Nothing beats standing behind someone fumbling change at a bus farebox while looking at your watch, worried about being late for your connection.
More security please, but preferably without brutality. How is it that Metro Transit police have a reputation for being mean, but there is still a lot of bad behavior on their buses and trains? Can we do better?