Will LRT be faster than the bus is now?

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June 21, 2004 // UPDATED 2:13 pm - April 25, 2007
By: sue rich
sue rich

Schedule comparisons may surprise speed-seekers

They're sleek and modern, therefore they get from point A to point B faster than any lumbering Metro Transit bus ever could, right?

Not necessarily.

Light-rail trains whizzing along Hiawatha Avenue herald a new era of mass transit, but a select comparison of LRT schedules to current bus routes show that the trains aren't always speedier.

This may come as a surprise to drivers who have seen a light-rail train zip past in a yellow-blue blur. The maximum speed of the Hiawatha Light Rail Vehicles is 55 mph, but Metro Transit says they will generally operate at 35 mph, and, in Downtown, at about 20 mph -- meaning the difference between tracks and asphalt isn't that great overall.

(Metro Transit officials note that speed isn't the only factor affecting riders. Trains will come more frequently -- usually every seven-and-a-half to 10 minutes -- than the average bus does now. As of June 26, buses will also be rerouted along high-traffic corridors. So even if the trip itself isn't faster, there will be less wait time -- even with added transfers some current riders may face, transit officials claim.)

How does Route 55 stack up against pre-LRT bus times? (Because of the June 26 bus rerouting, we compared trains to existing bus schedules. Bus and LRT routes are not identical, but for comparison we made sure they began and ended within a couple of blocks of each other.)

And the winners are:

Short haul: From the Nicollet Mall Station on South 5th Street to Cedar-Riverside.

LRT: Eight minutes.

Bus: Six to 10 minutes using pre-LRT Routes 19, 20 and 7. (Route 20, which is being eliminated in restructuring, took a brisk seven minutes, and it made it in just six minutes on Sundays and holidays.)

The verdict: buses and LRT tie.

Mid-point comparison: From the Nicollet Mall Station to the East Lake Street & Cedar Avenue intersection.

LRT: 12 minutes to Lake Street's Midtown Station.

Bus: 20 minutes, on average, taking the #19 from South 8th Street and Nicollet Mall to the Lake-Cedar intersection a few blocks west of the Midtown station. The pre-LRT #7 took 16 minutes from South 4th and Nicollet to Lake and Cedar via limited-stop service that skipped West Bank and Seward neighborhood stops.

The verdict: LRT clearly wins.

Longer haul: From the Nicollet Mall Station to the airport

LRT: 33 minutes, linking at Ft. Snelling -- which is the line's southern terminus until winter -- to the 155 shuttlebus. (Travel time will drop to 23 minutes when the Airport Station opens in December, according to the Hiawatha Project Office Web site.)

Bus: 29-40 minutes, using the #19 -- beloved for its circuitous route to the main terminal by the neighborhood residents who rely on it and notorious to people who just want to get to the airport--from South 8th Street and Nicollet Mall to the main terminal's northern entrance. From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., the #19 typically takes 40 minutes. However, three limited-stop routes leaving South 8th Street at 4:15 p.m., 4:42 p.m. and 5:12 p.m. take 28 or 29 minutes, bypassing the West Bank and/or Lake Street stops.

The verdict: LRT wins, with the three limited-stop exceptions -- and the train will whomp buses come December.

End-to-end: From the Warehouse District Station to the Mall of America

LRT: 43 minutes, traveling to the Ft. Snelling Station, then taking the 155 shuttle to the Mall. (The trip will take 31 minutes when the Mall of America station opens in December.)

Bus: 30-40 minutes. The 180 line gets from South 3rd Street and Nicollet Mall to the big Mall in 30 minutes most of the time; 38-40 minutes during weekday rush hours.

The verdict: LRT is slower, for now, but by Christmas, times will be comparable.

In the end, if speed is on your mind, check the Trip Planner on the Metro Transit Web site to figure out the fastest way to get where you need to go: mouse over to www.metrotransit.org, select "Transit Information" and then "Trip Planner." Just type in your start-point and destination and select "Faster Trip" under route preference (as opposed to "less walking") and let the online planner plot your course.

Light-rail fans and curious souls can catch a glimpse of commuting life with LRT before it opens by selecting a date after Saturday, June 26 in the lower left box of the online form.

Schedules for the Hiawatha Line, a.k.a. Metro Transit Route 55, can be downloaded at www.metrotransit.org (go to "Transit Information," select "Route changes effective June 26," and then "Route 55").