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Twin Ports readies for historic transit makeover in 2022

Duluth Transit Authority will introduce a new busing network with fewer routes and faster times in June.

Duluth Transit Authority General Manager Rod Fournier at the DTA's garage
DTA General Manager Rod Fournier poses in the DTA’s garage Tuesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Flora Woodfork doesn’t own a vehicle, and depends on public transit to go to work as food service manager at the Damiano Center and shop at the grocery store she prefers near the Miller Hill Mall.

On weekends, buses start later, forcing her to take a cab to work. Sometimes, a day-off trip to the grocery store using the bus can feel like it takes forever.

“Make it more convenient, and they’ll get more riders,” Woodfork said of the Duluth Transit Authority. “It’s hard in Duluth if you don’t have a car. Going to the store is basically my whole day.”

071520.N.DNT.HomelessUpdateC7.jpg
Flora Woodfork

Complaints about long rides and waits have dogged the DTA for years. But this summer, the local transit authority plans to change all of that with the introduction of its first major network update in generations.

Dubbed the Better Bus Blueprint, the new busing network reduces the number of bus routes from 33 to 15, while increasing frequency along major lines, called Go Lines, to every 15 minutes during peak hours and 20 minutes during midday and evenings. The routes will mostly start around the same times — 5 a.m. on weekdays, 6 a.m. on Saturdays, and 7 a.m. on Sundays — and end no earlier than 8 p.m., and as late as midnight.

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The reimagining of the network was approved by the DTA board of directors last August, and will launch in June. As part of the lead up, the DTA will begin removing 350-400 of its 1,300 bus stops in an effort to improve the general speed of travel along its routes.

“Once you get past the zoo, we’ve got some stops 200 feet apart — that’s real close,” DTA General Manager Rod Fournier told the News Tribune earlier this month, referring to the Grand Avenue corridor. “Industry standard is 700 to 1,200 feet. What we’re trying to do is what makes sense.”

Fournier is a 34-year employee who started with the DTA as a bus operator. He described the network as “mature,” even following some of the streetcar routes from Duluth’s earliest days as a city. It’s forever grown in piecemeal fashion, sometimes with stops being added at the request of a family.

MAp of DTA's proposed new system
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

But it was past time to listen to users and advocates who craved higher frequencies and a streamlined, simpler network. The results are two main lines pulsing and crisscrossing the city — a Blue Line moving from West Duluth to the University of Minnesota Duluth, and Green Line from downtown to the mall.

“That’s really what everybody wants — from all the surveys we did — they want more frequency,” Fournier said. “And the heartbeat of this is the two high-frequency lines.”

Described as “pre-bus rapid transit” lines, the goal in several years will be to build out boarding platforms and amenities which allow the routes to conduct bus rapid transit, an industry staple in metro areas that treats busing in the manner of high-speed rail.

“Our high-frequency lines are only going to stop, give or take, every six blocks,” Fournier said. “That’s what makes it rapid.”

All of the network updates are cost neutral, explained Fournier, meaning the new network is not a cost-savings measure and there’s no need to add or reduce staff.

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Already 2022 has emerged as a crucial year for Northern Lights Express, the proposed commuter railway that faces more state hurdles than federal ones.

Leadership with the cities of Duluth and Superior has been planning the revolutionary network change alongside the DTA. Superior figures to gain the most consistent service it’s ever had.

“It’s actually the most dramatic expansion of access to public transportation in the history of the DTA,” Superior Mayor Jim Paine said. “It does the kinds of things people have been asking for, for years.”

As with a lot of the new network, some of the reach and neighborhood service of the current network will be lost, costing Superior, for example, direct service to neighborhoods such as Billings Park and South End.

“But ridership is so low in those places, it’s holding back our ability to provide service to people at times and places they need it,” Paine said.

In Duluth, senior transportation planner James Gittemeier described the network as something the city’s latest comprehensive plan, Imagine Duluth 2035, had called for to be analyzed.

“The Better Bus Blueprint really did look at these issues the city wanted the DTA to be looking at,” Gittemeier said.

Gittemeier’s own bus stop near City Hall is being eliminated as part of the changes.

“Those are some of the trade-offs,” Gittemeier said, describing a loss of “front door” stops in favor of greater frequency and access to more users.

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The city is working with Essentia Health on developing a stop at the new hospital under construction on East Superior Street. It’s also working with the DTA to solve a service need to Gary-New Duluth, one of the places in the city with a higher density of “transit-reliant” people, but also a location farther west than the frequent Go Line service that will terminate around the zoo.

“We have a transit-reliant population throughout our city with certain areas of more density,” Gittemeier said. “Down by St. Luke’s hospital, 50-60% of households are without vehicles.”

households with no vehicle.jpg
Source: U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey (ACS data)
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

At UMD, where students ride the DTA for free with a U-Pass, director of student life operations Patrick Keenan noted that students have long requested expanding the evening and weekend service. The smaller number of routes will make wayfinding easier, with fewer transfers and a reduction in variations on the same routes — such as routes with titles like 10, 10E and 10H eliminated in favor of a single route.

“UMD is looking forward to the implementation of the new routes and schedules,” Keenan said. “With these changes, we believe fall semester ridership will reflect this satisfaction.”

Providing folks with greater frequency figures to add to access to the lives of those reliant on the DTA.

“If they make sure they get the buses running early on the weekends, it’ll save me $80 in cab fare,” Woodfork said about her commutes to work.

Recently, the city of Superior gave all school-age children free access to the bus, and ridership shot up hundreds of rides per month, Paine said, describing it as proof that people will respond to a system when it’s made to serve them better.

“It will increase ridership and improve the economy by giving people access to work, entertainment, school and opportunities they didn’t have before,” Paine said of the new network. “I have very little doubt about that. But my hope is that over time it’s seen as an effective and efficient alternative to other forms of transportation.”

Public transit is supposed to be the most effective way to cross a city, Paine noted, not just a “service of necessity” for people without other options.

For Fournier, the plan to address years of slowly declining ridership has energized the DTA.

“We look at it as a fresh beginning for the DTA and Duluth,” Fournier said. “We’re confident it’s going to give a good boost to ridership, and be the shot in the arm to get us moving toward the future.”

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