In early December, Metro Transit extended one of its busiest routes west from Uptown to turn around at the St. Louis Park border. The changes helped Raul Barrees get to work easier.

“I don’t have to transfer anymore, it’s a positive,” said Barrees as he got off the Route 21 at the Market Plaza stop to get to work. “I used to have to transfer to another bus, which was dumb. Lots of buses [get] stuck [at Uptown Transit Station] and don’t come out on time. [The transit station is] locked up, you can’t even [get] access into it.”

Barrees was one of two people onboard the 21 on Monday afternoon to take advantage of the change (The other person was this reporter). Metro Transit made the change as part of its quarterly service changes on December 2.

One of the reasons why Metro Transit made the changes was to prepare for upcoming construction on Hennepin Avenue South. When construction amps up in 2024, buses won’t be able to access the Uptown Transit Station. Most of its indoor waiting areas have been closed since last March in the agency’s efforts to combat loitering, and the agency plans to undertake a major renovation of the station while its bus routes are detoured.

Another reason why Metro Transit did this was to prepare for some big changes that will come to Lake Street in June 2025. Over the next year, Hennepin County will adjust the number of travel lanes on Lake Street ahead of the debut of a bus rapid transit route that will replace most of Route 21.

What is the B Line?

The B Line is envisioned by transit planners as a bus rapid transit, or BRT route operating between Union Depot Station in St. Paul and Lake Street and France Avenue, at the Minneapolis-St. Louis Park border. The route will be different from Route 21 in many ways. It will only stop at designated stations with large pylons and bus shelters that are lit and heated. Metro Transit has a station example within its B Line FAQ.

The Metro Transit B Line route courtesy of Metro Transit

Riders riding the B Line will not pay as they board, but pay like they are riding the light rail system. Riders will need to pay at a ticket vending machine or scan their Go-To card at a fare validator at one of the stations. They can also use Metro Transit’s mobile app to buy a ticket before they board. Though the station fare collection equipment is more expensive — the Go-To card station readers cost $14,500 per unit, four times as much as the $3,656 per unit cost of Go-To card bus readers — the agency believes it is worth the cost (Both the agency’s new fareboxes and mini ticket vending machines cost around $18,000 per unit).

“Having all of that fare collection take place at the station as opposed to on the vehicle is one of the most important ways that we as Metro Transit alone, even before we begin talking through roadway design with our partners, can minimize that dwell time,” said Katie Roth, Arterial Bus Rapid Transit director at Metro Transit.

Police officers, community service officers, and transit ambassadors will ride the buses to make sure people paid their fare and will also be ensuring behaviors are up to snuff via Metro Transit’s  updated code of conduct, which prohibits riders from eating, being partially unclothed, swearing, taking up more than one seat, blocking the aisle with a large object, playing audio out of a speakerphone, and harassing other riders, amongst other rules.

The buses themselves will look different, too. They will be more colorfully painted. The buses will have USB chargers, padded seating, and three doors instead of two to allow riders board and deboard buses faster.

An example of a B Line bus, courtesy of Metro Transit.

It’s unclear if the buses will come with bike racks that can fit fat bike tires, something it is testing on two regular route buses. It’s also uncertain whether the buses will come with three-position bike racks. Riders have taken to social media to lament the lack of available bike rack capacity on the D Line, which replaced Route 5. Emails obtained from Metro Transit show its drivers are worried about the racks blocking headlights, as well as delays associated with turning a longer bus with the rack deployed and more riders loading and unloading bikes.

It’s also unclear if the buses will have more room for people who use wheelchairs or strollers. Queen Davis, who is unhoused, brings a stroller onboard to stow their belongings because she believes Metro Transit doesn’t allow carts onboard (they don’t allow any items that block the aisles). Davis wants more space for those who use wheelchairs and strollers.

“I see a lot of wheelchair people struggling to get off. There’s a crowd of people coming in and they can’t get out. It’s a traffic jam,” said Davis.

Metro Transit said the buses will “provide frequent service” seven days a week. How long it will operate per day is still up in the air. Some riders believe the B Line should operate 24 hours.

“A lot of us get on the bus to stay warm and don’t have anywhere to go,” said Davis. As of now, the agency isn’t able to run overnight service because of a shortage of drivers and mechanics.

New route and changes to Lake Street design

The rapid bus route will also bring changes to how Lake Street is designed. Buses will have the ability to hold traffic lights green longer. And most of Lake Street’s travel lanes will be reconfigured from four travel lanes to two travel lanes, a center turn lane, and a transit lane in at least one direction.

The transit lanes will disappear in some segments where Lake Street experiences the most congestion. Two examples include eastbound between Market Plaza and Excelsior Boulevard, as well as westbound between Stevens and Blaisdell Avenues.  

Only two segments of the corridor will receive transit-only lanes in both directions: between Excelsior Boulevard and Dupont Avenue through Uptown, and between Portland and Elliot Avenues. Planners say the latter segment can accommodate transit lanes because they don’t need to remove any parking and the intersections already have left turn lanes.

Planners say they wanted to prioritize the adding of bump outs along Lake Street to reduce pedestrian crossing distances, as well as left-turn lanes, owing to the number of crashes on the corridor. Lake Street between France Avenue and Interstate 35W saw 929 crashes from January 2018 to September of this year, five of which involved at least one fatality.

“The Lake Street corridor is a high-crash corridor with a lot of safety needs,” said Roth. “Putting in those turn lanes was a priority for all of the parties involved.”

Planners tout these features will make the B Line about 20% faster than Route 21 today. Bus travel time within the Southwest Voices reporting area — from I-35W to Hennepin Avenue — could be about two minutes faster when it opens in June 2025.

Changes to Lake Street will cost $65 million. $35 million will come from the State. $28 million will come from the federal government. The balance will come from local and regional sources, with an additional $12 million for Hennepin County from the Federal Highway Administration’s RAISE grant.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the corridor in August of 2022 after the Federal Highway Administration awarded Hennepin County the $12 million grant. Buttigieg said at the event that Hennepin County received the grant because those involved wanted to revitalize Lake Street because of the unrest that ravaged the corridor days after George Floyd’s murder.

Details from Hennepin County about funding the Lake Street multimodal improvements

“The successful applications, including this one, are the ones that have really distinguished themselves in terms of the benefits to safety, to climate, to equity, to economic development, to preparing for the future,” said Buttigieg last August. “The reason we're here is because we saw alignment … between local, city, county, state, and regional players all coming to us. This community has a lot to be proud of.”

Local bus service changes in 2025

The B Line will open in June 2025, six months later than anticipated. Metro Transit said said it chose to delay construction to cut costs and encourage more contractor competition.

“Opening the B Line in June of 2025 will allow the project to be positioned for lower costs [and] better value for both Metro Transit, the [Met] Council and our partners and for more contractors interested in greater competition in this work as we put it out to bid later this year,” said Roth.

There were four bids on the plan, and the Met Council awarded the contract to Thomas and Sons, who also built the B Line stations east of Hiawatha, as well as the C and D Lines.

Metro Transit said the June 2025 launch date allows staff extra time to test the systems.

When the B Line debuts, Metro Transit plans to severely cut back Route 21 service. The route will be restructured so that it will only operate in Minneapolis, between the Uptown Transit Station and 27th Avenue, by the Third Precinct. Service will also be cut back to run as often as every 30 minutes. A separate route will provide local service in St. Paul. The agency will present a plan by fall 2024.

Not everyone is happy that Route 21 will mostly be replaced by a route that makes fewer stops. The B Line, for example, will not stop in front of the Uptown Cub. But the 21 will continue to serve the grocery store.

“The nice thing about the 21 is that it stops pretty much at any bus stop at almost every corner,” said Tim Weinmann, who takes the 21 twice a week to run errands, including at the Uptown Cub.

Twig Haney, a downtown St. Paul resident who works in Uptown, is worried that fewer stops may result in people crowding to board already-crowded buses at the remaining stops, therefore slowing the bus down.

“The majority of this route is generally packed, even with the double buses with the accordion in the middle. Reducing the stops may build up [crowds]. It just doesn’t seem like the best idea,” said Haney, who added they may move out of downtown St. Paul because they can’t stomach the two-hour round-trip bus commute. Though the B Line project is expected to cut bus travel times, travel time from Lake and France to downtown St. Paul is still expected to be over an hour. In a vehicle, a non-rush hour trip can take about 20 minutes.

Transfers between some other major crosstown routes may be more difficult, too. Today, riders only have to walk across the street to transfer from Route 21 to Route 6 at Uptown Transit Station, and from Route 21 to Route 5 and the D Line at Chicago-Lake Transit Center. When station construction finishes next fall, riders will have to walk one block from Route 5, Route 6, and the D and E Lines to get to the B Line, and in the case of Chicago-Lake Transit Center, Route 21 as well.  

The selection station recommendations “were recommended to balance several priorities, including maintaining the ease of existing transfer activity, positioning with long-term transitway planning, and minimizing impacts on other roadway users,” Metro Transit Public Relations Manager Drew Kerr said. Kerr said the E Line station at Uptown Transit Station takes advantage of existing facilities and facilitates transfers to Routes 17, 21, 23 and 612.

The B Line won’t be complete when it opens

When the B Line is complete in 2025, the route won’t be completely finalized. Though the route will end at Lake Street and France Avenue, Metro Transit hasn’t yet presented an updated station plan for Met Council approval. The current station plan calls for B Line buses to discharge and pick up riders at the West Lake Southwest Light Rail station, which is under construction.

Hennepin County plans to build affordable housing at the turnaround at Lake Street and France Avenue. They just don’t have concrete plans.

“There is a lot that would have to happen, so it’ll be some time before those plans are solidified,” said Hennepin County spokesperson Carolyn Marinan.

Marinan adds Metro Transit will continue to operate buses to the Lake and France turnaround in the meantime. Roth said at a late September Met Council meeting that they will build a restroom for their drivers, as well as “temporary customer boarding accommodations so that folks can board the bus there before redevelopment takes place.”