New bus service signals a good year for metro transit

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Dakota County commissioner Will Branning has been working for 20 years to bring transit to Eagan, Apple Valley and Lakeville. The dream becomes reality for phase one of the service in December.

"Board a bus at these stations and be at the Mall of America and pick up the light rail and go on downtown in a very short time, and of course with Northstar completing they'd be able to go all the way to Big Lake on transit," Branning said.

That's a total of 67 miles using bus rapid transit, light rail and commuter rail.

Next door in the southern Twin Cities suburb of Burnsville, another BRT, or bus rapid transit line, opens soon as part of the rebuild of Interstate 35W.

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The relatively transit-starved suburbs, Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz said, are beginning to see the results of years of planning. Kautz said there's lots of ground to cover.

"We're doing our best to catch up, but yes we are behind," Kautz said.

Although it is often light rail that catches the eye of transit fanciers, bus rapid transit, its advocates say, is a better fit for the public pocket book.

Population density is one reason. Inner cities have it, suburbs lack it. Rail is an easier sell in cities with taxpayers and potential fare payers living cheek by jowl.

Residents of smaller cities or less densely populated 'burbs are more likely to swallow a price tag for a bus rapid transit system that costs $6 million a mile rather than popping for rail at about $50 million a mile.

The price and population equation was key in selling the Emerald Express or EmX in Eugene and Springfield, Ore. Eugene's Emerald Express, bus rapid transit boosters said, is the country's BRT gem.

Metropolitan Eugene and nearby Springfield, with a population of about 250,000, are expanding their two-year-old bus rapid transit service.

Eugene BRT spokesman Stefano Viggiano said selling people on BRT includes making the ride seem more like rail and as little like riding the bus as possible.

"Efforts to speed up boarding so instead of paying as you get on the bus you buy your ticket off board just as you would with light rail and board any door," Viggiano said.

Eugene buys specially-built buses that look more like trams.

On the road, the goal of a true BRT service is to speed the ride by giving the buses priority over cars. That's done by creating an exclusive right of way. However, building a bus-only lane costs a lot more money.

The compromise, Dakota County Commissioner Will Branning said, is to run the Cedar Avenue BRT service on the highway shoulder.

"It'll be just like a diamond lane, it'll just be for buses only," Branning said. "However it'll be available for stalled cars and cars making right turning motions to get off Cedar Avenue."

That other time saver, of having bus rapid transit riders pay their fare on the platform as they wait for the bus, won't be available at least for the time being on the Cedar Avenue service. Paying on board is a cost-saving measure to avoid the expense of buying off-board fare equipment.

The Metropolitan area currently has two transit corridors, Hiawatha light rail and the I-394 HOT or high-occupancy toll lane.

Twelve more corridors, including Cedar Avenue BRT and Northstar commuter rail, are in the works. When complete in 2030, 21 years from now, there'll be a total of 273 miles of Twin Cities transit corridors.

Transit advocates are impatient with the time table.

Edward Goetz, a University of Minnesota professor of urban and regional planning, is optimistic about the Twin Cities transit future. Goetz said the reality is there isn't enough money to move faster.

Goetz said to remember that we're a very sprawled out metropolitan area. That makes it more expensive, he says, to deliver transit services.

"It took us several decades to become as sprawled as we are, and it will take several decades for us to change that pattern and create the kinds of densities that will sustain these transitways," Goetz said.

Burnsville mayor Elizabeth Kautz is another transit optimist. She predicts the cost of gasoline, relatively cheap now but likely to rise again, will expand public support for transit as will, she says, more people deciding to shrink their carbon footprint by leaving the car at home.

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