New era in transit opens Dec. 4

Photo by John Gessner

The Maven Apartments were built across the street from the site of one of Burnsville’s two Orange Line bus rapid transit stations.

Orange Line bus rapid transit to debut along I-35W 

A new era of mass transit for Burnsville and cities to the north will begin Saturday, Dec. 4, when the Orange Line bus rapid transit service opens along the Interstate 35W corridor.

The line will offer more frequent service throughout the day than the freeway express routes riders are used to on the 17-mile corridor from downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville. It’s Minnesota’s busiest commuter corridor, which carried about 14,000 bus riders a day before the pandemic, according to Metro Transit, which operates the Orange Line.

Using mostly the marked E-ZPass lanes, the line’s 60-foot buses won’t fight traffic as they serve 12 transit stations in Minneapolis, Richfield, Bloomington and Burnsville. The extended buses have three doors for ground-level boarding. Station amenities include ticket vending machines, push-button heat, lighting, bike racks and real-time schedule notifications.

“If you’ve been on light rail transit, a lot of the features will be familiar to you,” said Juan Rangel, a Metro Transit outreach coordinator.

Burnsville’s two stations are in the Heart of the City — one at the southwest corner of Nicollet Avenue and Highway 13 and a northbound-only station at Travelers Trail and Burnsville Parkway.

Burnsville’s Heart of the City municipal parking ramp will serve as an Orange Line park-and-ride, according to Metro Transit.

The Heart of the City redevelopment district that has taken shape since 1999 with mixed uses, high density, walkability and Nicollet Commons Park set the stage for extension of the Orange Line across the Minnesota River. An I-35W bus rapid transit line has been part of the Metropolitan Council’s transportation planning since 2010.

“The foundation was already laid with the Heart of the City,” said Regina Dean, Burnsville’s assistant community development director. “That was actually a big attractor for Metro Transit to look at Burnsville as an option, because they saw it’s basically functioning as a transit-oriented development district without the transit.”

New Heart of the City apartment complexes have touted the Orange Line’s nearby stations as a selling point.

The Maven Apartments on West Travelers Trail, Burnsville’s first new complex in 14 years, is across the street from the 13 and Nicollet station. The proximity was attractive to builder Roers Cos., Dean said.

Chase Real Estate, which is building the Gallery on Nicollet complex at Nicollet Avenue and East Travelers Trail, cites the Orange Line in its marketing materials. MWF Properties has approval to build two apartment buildings on land near the Travelers Trail and Burnsville Parkway station.

Policy changes the City Council has made in recent years to welcome new apartments enabled the building boom, but the Orange Line is “a really big piece of the puzzle of the economic development of this city,” said Council Member Dan Gustafson, president of the Burnsville Economic Development Authority.

“The biggest drawback for areas like ours has always been transportation,” he said. “We’ve had our express buses for a long time but they only operate a few hours a day, each way. This is going to be operating all day long. It’s more in tune with how the workforce works these days.”

Preparing to capitalize on the new transit opportunities, the city created transit-oriented development zoning that now covers both sections of the Heart of the City and extends across I-35W to the hotels and other businesses on Aldrich Avenue.

Features of the new zoning include higher allowable densities, elimination of building height limits, parking reductions and standards for bike parking with new development, Dean said.

Developers remain “very interested” in the Heart of the City for residential or mixed-use development, whether fill-in projects on remaining vacant parcels or replacement of older buildings, she said.

“We’re in a redevelopment kind of zone in our minds, the whole city,” Gustafson said. “I expect to see (Burnsville Parkway) itself transformed over the next 10 years. I know you can pretty much buy any of those buildings on the Parkway right now.”

The Orange Line may someday be extended to the Burnsville Center area along County Road 42 — another targeted redevelopment area — but Rangel of Metro Transit said there’s no funding yet as part of the $150.7 million project.

“The plan to extend the Orange Line to Burnsville Center is still in Dakota County’s court,” he said. “They’re the lead agency right now in advancing the planning of any Orange Line extension.”

Perks of bus rapid transit

Orange Line service will probably start at around 5 a.m. and end at midnight, Rangel said. Weekend service will be less frequent than weekday service. Departures times will be every 15 minutes for much of the day except for very early morning and late at night, when they’ll be 30 minutes, according to Metro Transit.

“It won’t just support the typical office worker who may live in the suburbs and commutes downtown,” Rangel said. “The Orange Line will operate all day, every day so it will also provide opportunities for people who live in the core to work in the suburbs or travel to the suburbs, for people working shifts besides 9 to 5.”

Metro Transit’s goal is to improve the speed of travel by 20% over that of the current 535 express route, which runs from 98th Street in Bloomington to downtown, Rangel said. The Orange Line will replace the route.

Many express routes such as those operated by the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority have fewer stops than the 12-stop Orange Line, Rangel said.

“So the express routes may remain faster options than the Orange Line because they don’t make as many stops,” but they lack the Orange Line’s flexibility, he said.

The Orange Line will be Metro Transit’s fourth bus rapid transit service, following the Red Line along Cedar Avenue between Apple Valley and the Mall of America, the A Line along Snelling Avenue between Rosedale and the 46th street light rail transit station, and the C Line along Penn Avenue between downtown Minneapolis and the Brooklyn Center Transit Center.

Orange Line rides will be free Saturday, Dec. 4, through Monday, Dec. 6, Rangel said. Events to mark the opening are being planned at stops along the way, he said.

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