Early ridership and cost data signals Blue Line Extension competitive for federal funding

Date: Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Early estimated ridership and cost ranges for the METRO Blue Line Extension indicate this proposed light rail project will continue to be eligible and highly competitive for federal funding through the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program.

The METRO Blue Line Extension will extend the existing Blue Line light rail 13.4 miles north, connecting communities in North Minneapolis, Robbinsdale, Crystal, and Brooklyn Park to the regional light rail network.

Ridership data reflects steady return to transit

The Blue Line Extension project is expected to bring total daily ridership on the METRO Blue Line to more than 30,000 by adding 11,500 to 13,000 daily rides. As much as 50% of these new riders are expected to come from households that do not own a car and rely on transit to move freely every day.

“Providing efficient, reliable, all-day transit service will add mobility that doesn’t exist today for many residents along the Blue Line Extension corridor," said Met Council Member Reva Chamblis, whose district includes much of the project’s alignment.

Blue Line Extension ridership projections are expected to grow as transit ridership continues to bounce back from the pandemic, with light rail leading the way. Systemwide transit ridership in the Twin Cities grew 16% last year, and light rail ridership jumped 19%. Overall ridership is back to 60% of pre-pandemic levels. And these trends are expected to continue.

Blue Line Extension project staff generated these early ridership ranges using a new federal forecasting model, Simplified Trips on Project Software (STOPS), that may be more conservative than previously used models and incorporates a blend of 2019 and 2022 ridership survey data. Existing Twin Cities light rail projects have exceeded previous early model estimates by 20% to 30%.

Project staff will update the ridership estimates again this summer to reflect a revised STOPS model expected from the FTA this spring and new local data based on 2023 regional transit ridership.

“These early figures show light rail is the right service for this corridor,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando. “But ridership isn’t just about the number of people riding. It’s also about who we are serving. This is a generational equity investment in communities of color that have historically been underinvested in. It will guarantee premium transit service in communities of color who rely on transit every day to get to work, school, healthcare, family, and opportunities. These communities have experienced a history of underinvestment and racial disparities stemming from generations of systemic racism. They deserve the same level of investment as others benefitting from light rail investments in our region.”

Preliminary cost ranges consistent with national trends

Currently based on 15% design and engineering, cost estimates will continue to evolve as communities determine the exact scope of the Blue Line Extension and engineering, design, and environmental work continues.

Current projections show a base cost for constructing the line at $2.2 billion. To account for potential costs associated with unknown risks and conditions at this early design phase, the federal government also requires projects to add contingency costs between 35% and 45%, leading to a preliminary total cost range between $2.9 billion and $3.2 billion.

These preliminary ranges are consistent with national trends in inflation and rising construction costs since the pandemic. The Blue Line Extension remains on the lower end of comparable projects around the country in terms of relative cost.

The full Metropolitan Council will now begin the process of review and discussion of this information with the Corridor Management Committee and communities along the line. Later this summer, each of the cities will review project plans in a municipal consent process and the Met Council will use its Transitway Advancement Policy for further analysis.

“Light rail projects are 100-year investments. They aren’t cheap, but they are worth it,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Lunde. “This project will provide reliable transit service for decades to come in addition to generating billions of dollars of investment in community and economic development, housing, infrastructure improvements, and more. With intention and planning, we can ensure this investment creates opportunities for communities of color in this corridor to build wealth and grow shared prosperity today and for generations to come.”

“At the heart of this project is an intentional investment in communities where access to transportation and infrastructure have been historically under resourced,” said Metropolitan Council Member Anjuli Cameron.” This investment supports regional equity. There is a lot of potential to serve the families, communities, and businesses who live along the route. We have work to do to ensure that this project delivers opportunity and improves the quality of life for and social connectedness of our communities, but with strong partnerships with community and other government agencies, I’m confident we can carry our communities, region, and state into the future.”

Next steps for the Blue Line Extension project

These early estimates for ridership and cost will be peer reviewed and shared with the FTA. Updated estimates will be officially submitted to the FTA for a formal project rating in early 2025.

Early this summer, project staff will release a draft environmental study that will clearly identify opportunities of the project, as well as impacts and possible strategies to avoid, minimize, and mitigate them.

In the next few months, the project office will complete 30% design work on the Blue Line Extension. Cost and ridership estimates will be updated again at that time, and several more times throughout the planning process.

Later this summer, each of the cities along the proposed line will review project plans in a municipal consent process. Under Minnesota law, that approval is required for the project to move forward. Public meetings will be held along the line to ensure people can offer feedback and ask questions before their city votes on the physical design plans.

Throughout this year, project staff will be out in communities collecting feedback and input on plans to inform future decisions and designs.

Project partners at every level are also working together with communities along the line to advance robust anti-displacement strategies and investments.

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