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Ridership estimates tricky for Gold Line planners

More than 8,000 daily rides are expected on the planned Gold Line bus rapid transit route by 2040, but planners face new unknowns in tallying those estimates.

The Gold Line won’t be the first BRT route in the Twin Cities, but it will be the first one that runs in its own dedicated lane – a big difference that sets it apart from other lines in the area, planners said at an open house last week.

Recent route changes may also end up driving changes to the latest ridership estimates as planners reexamine routes in Oakdale and Woodbury after Lake Elmo opted out of being part of the route earlier this year.

Regional transit planners use the “Metropolitan Council Travel Demand Model” to estimate ridership, a required tool for the Federal Transit Administration funding process.

The complicated calculation – which factors in things like travel time, cost, new development and jobs in the corridor – has missed its mark on other large projects in the Twin Cities, though some more than others, Steve Wilson, a principal at SRF Consulting in the Travel Demand Modeling group, told attendees at the open house.

The model has often been conservative in its estimates, Wilson said.

Both the Green Line and Blue Linelight rail transit routes are exceeding the model’s estimated ridership, Wilson noted as an example.

But the Gold Line is different, even from other local BRT lines like the Red Line, which runs from the Apple Valley Transit Station to the Mall of America, said Lyssa Leitner, Gold Line project manager at Washington County.

The Red line is seeing ridership numbers slightly below what was estimated for 2015, but that isn’t necessarily an indicator of how the Gold Line will do, she said.

“We don’t really draw a lot of comparisons between the two because [the Red Line] runs on shoulders, so it doesn’t have the same kind of travel time benefits,” Leitner said. “The other big difference is that it doesn’t go to a downtown.”

Gold Lineplanners are taking the information they learned from earlier projects and applying them to the proposed 12-mile route between St. Paul’s Union Depot and Woodbury, which would run in its own lane next to Interstate 94.

With every new line that opens in the region, planners – and the equation they use – are getting better at estimating, Wilson said at the meeting.

“It’s evolutionary,” he said. “When we get something wrong we also try to learn from that.”

For now, adding the Gold Lineis expected to help triple daily ridership in the corridor by 2040. Express and regular bus route ridership in the area would go up slightly while BRT would carry the bulk of new riders, according to project documents.

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