Orange Line opens, connecting Mpls. to Burnsville on I-35W

Photo by Henry Pan

You don’t want to drink the juice that runs the buses on the Orange Line. But you might want to ride it, depending on where you’re going.

The Orange Line, Metro Transit’s latest addition to its complement of rapid transit routes, opened on December 4. The route, which connects downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville on Interstate 35W, replaces Routes 535 and 597 and parallels Minnesota Valley Transit Authority’s Routes 460 and 465.

The Orange Line was conceived as early as the 1990s when the Minnesota Department of Transportation discussed rebuilding I-35W to alleviate congestion. The initial plan called for widening the highway with no transit improvements whatsoever.

“And it was a done deal, no transit, hundreds of units of affordable housing were going to be taken,” DFL Senator Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) said at a press conference celebrating the Orange Line opening. Dibble was involved in advocating for the Orange Line as a community organizer. The state legislature eventually required MnDOT to study such a line between Minneapolis and Lakeville in 2003.

The project cost $150 million to build and was partially funded by the federal government. But Metro Transit says the costs are worth it, considering that it connects to 200,000 jobs, 30% of which are outside of Minneapolis. It also connects directly to Burnsville’s Heart of the City, a burgeoning residential, arts, and retail center.

Benjamin Harper was one of the first to use the Orange Line on Saturday morning. A resident of South Minneapolis, he was waiting at the new Lake Street station for a bus to head to Burnsville to work a temp job manufacturing furniture. “I just picked it up cause I needed some extra cash,” Harper said, adding that the Orange Line won’t have a significant impact on his life.

Photo by Henry Pan Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle (center) cuts the Orange Line ribbon as Gov. Tim Walz, Sen Tina Smith, and others look on

Met Council member Phil Sterner, on the other hand, sees himself using the Orange Line quite a bit. “I actually go to church on 46th Street [in] Richfield on 66th; I have a rental property that I bought there so I’m actually going to be pretty active,” Sterner said on the day of the opening.

The route does have some drawbacks. It does not serve MVTA’s Burnsville Transit Station, a hub for routes serving the Mall of America, Prior Lake, and Shakopee. Riders wishing to connect to any of those routes must first cross a six-lane highway to transfer between buses or ride MVTA’s Orange Link, a move that could take at least five minutes.

It also lacks a dedicated transit lane on its entire route. And while it has a dedicated ramp to downtown Minneapolis and a dedicated tunnel under Interstate 494, it shares a lane with carpoolers for most of the way.

Metro Transit project manager Charles Carlson says it’s more efficient this way. “We can actually maximize the efficiency of infrastructure investment, and the width of the highway we can actually use versus having a bus and express lanes and general-purpose lanes by combining them,” Carlson said. 

The route uses diesel buses that were purchased and manufactured earlier this year, which climate change activists opposed because of their impact on the environment. Although the agency’s federal grant application stipulates only diesel buses are to be used, the agency is allowed to use other types of buses on the route on a trial basis, such as electric buses, coach buses, and double-deckers.

Originally scheduled to operate every 10 minutes on weekdays, it runs every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 30 minutes on weekends because of the agency’s ongoing driver shortage.

Also on December 4, Metro Transit returned to service electric buses dedicated to the C Line serving Penn Avenue in North Minneapolis after nine months, which were sidelined due to charger issues. The agency is also almost finished with its transition to a low-floor accessible bus fleet with the auction of its 14 of 22 remaining buses with stairs to climb by the doors on December 16.