One overcast day, Tammy Gallagher waits alone at a bus stop at Park Avenue and Seventh Street, amidst the shadows of the Hennepin County Medical Center.

A Maple Grove resident who works at HCMC four days a week, Gallagher is the only passenger to board a Maple Grove Transit Route 784 bus. She likes riding the express route over other routes connecting Maple Grove and downtown Minneapolis because it has a stop closer to where she works. 

“I usually catch about the 5:45 a.m. bus. It’s still dark in the morning, and I didn’t love the idea of walking in the dark four blocks to work,” Gallagher said after she boarded the Route 784 bus to head home. Six more people boarded the bus at Third Street and Portland Avenue, five blocks away.

Given the pandemic-prompted decrease in commuting, transit agencies are looking into creative solutions to draw riders back. Solutions for downtown Minneapolis include rethinking the Marq2 transit corridor’s purpose. The corridor runs along Marquette and Second Avenues between Washington Avenue and 12th Street South, where two travel lanes in one direction are reserved generally for express buses. Local buses may start running on the Marq2 corridor more often if the City permanently closes Nicollet Mall to buses, a move officials have been mulling for about a year.

The Marq2 transit corridor runs along Marquette and Second avenues between Washington Avenue and 12th Street South.

Marquette Avenue was the primary north-south transit node until 1954, when streetcar service stopped in downtown Minneapolis. Marquette and Second avenues were then converted to one-way streets, and buses were moved onto Nicollet Avenue, including the predecessor to today’s Route 18.

In 1974, the City of Minneapolis and Metro Transit’s predecessor decided to convert one travel lane on each street to go the opposite direction to ensure buses could travel faster along Marquette and Second avenues. What resulted is a corridor that could accommodate 325 buses per direction per day, according to a Minneapolis Tribune article at the time. 

Beginning in late 2009, the City and Metro Transit added an additional bus-only lane on both streets and concentrated most suburban express routes on the corridor, as part of a two-pronged plan to alleviate congestion on area freeways and to lift a bike ban off Nicollet Mall. The rebuild, which received $133.4 million from the federal government, changed how express buses serving Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, and Washington counties run through downtown. The buses stop every two blocks based on what county they serve, and riders boarding most routes pay as they exit the bus outside of downtown.

But those efficiencies still couldn’t help meet demand. Right before the pandemic, in 2019, construction projects involving the closure of Marquette Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets required a detour that worsened congestion and delayed commuters in downtown Minneapolis. The Min­ne­so­ta Valley Transit Authority took matters into its own hands and moved 47 daily trips across six routes serving Dakota County off of Marquette Avenue and onto Fourth Avenue. Two of those routes, Routes 470 and 472, remain on Fourth Avenue; the other four were suspended because of the pandemic. Both Routes 470 and 472 continue to drop passengers off on Second Avenue.

Meanwhile, Maple Grove Transit was looking to serve other parts of downtown Minneapolis, responding to rider requests. “This was in the works prior to COVID. We had a lot of customers who were commenting that they were taking a bus, but then they gotta walk eight blocks or more, 10 to 12 blocks more, to the Wells Fargo campus. A lot of our riders work at Wells Fargo,” said Maple Grove Transit administrator Mike Opatz in a phone interview. Opatz added that the transit system also wanted to better serve employers located further from the heart of downtown, such as HCMC and Thrivent.

Maple Grove Transit started Route 784, an express route connecting Maple Grove with Downtown East via Portland and Park avenues in August 2022. The route seems to be doing well; Route 784 had 18,781 boardings last year. However, it’s a far cry from Maple Grove’s two other express routes that serve the Marq2 corridor — Routes 781 and 785 — which had a combined 139,581 boardings last year. 

Photo of the Marq2 corridor by H. Jiahong Pan

Though Gallagher likes the 784 for its convenience, she may start riding the Marq2-serving routes again. “This time of year, though, I think I will be taking the other bus [Route 781] more because I think just having a stroll before and after work, when it's not dark. It's gonna really be a nice thing,” said Gallagher. 

In spite of suburban providers moving service off of the Marq2 corridor, the suburban providers remain committed to it because of how it is designed to handle the flow of their buses. “Metro Transit … instituted a very strict set of operating procedures for how the drivers use [the corridor]. That’s a benefit to the riders because it ensures smooth and consistent transit service,” said Opatz. 

But the Marq2 corridor is seeing fewer buses and fewer people commuting to and from downtown. Weekday boardings of Metro Transit express buses at Marq2 stops averaged 1,621 per weekday last fall, a drop from 9,333 in fall 2019. Around 299 buses are scheduled to operate on the Marq2 corridor today. 

Agencies may change the rules of how service works on the Marq2 corridor. In 2021, Metro Transit opened the Orange Line, a rapid bus line that operates differently from most commuter express buses on the corridor. Though it shares bus stops with MVTA routes, riders are supposed to pay before they board. It also doesn’t stop at Ninth Street, like its MVTA counterparts. Going northbound on Second Avenue, riders can board the buses for free; riders boarding any route on the corridor to travel within downtown have to pay a 50¢ fare.

Local buses may soon join the Marq2 dance if the City prevails in closing Nicollet Mall to bus traffic. Metro Transit is considering Marq2 as one of several potential corridors on which to to move Nicollet Mall buses. This could mean restoring local service to the Marq2 corridor for the first time since the 1970s. 

Running Nicollet Mall buses on Marq2 could potentially be a win-win: People on Nicollet Mall don’t have to worry about contending with buses, and buses could operate faster. The maximum operating speed on Nicollet Mall is 10 miles per hour, whereas buses can travel at 20 miles per hour on Marq2. Metro Transit already uses the Marq2 corridor to detour buses off of Nicollet Mall for the many events held on the street, including Aquatennial parades, markets, and even several Indian weddings.