Before they began riding Route 68 last year, Peter and David didn’t know one another. Today, though, the Inver Hills Community College students make a habit of sitting together on the bus so they can debate culture, philosophy and politics while traveling to class.
“We’ve gotten into some pretty weird topics before and sometimes have some pretty heated debates,” said David, a second-year student from South St. Paul studying anthropology.
One thing not up for debate among customers on a recent early morning Route 68 southbound trip: the value and convenience of the bus they were riding.
Stretching nearly 16 miles between the St. Paul-Maplewood border and Inver Grove Heights, Route 68 not only transports students like Peter and David to and from Inver Hills Community College but serves as a link for commuters and families to several key destinations and services in the east metro.
Traveling south on Jackson Street, Route 68 buses pass multi-family developments, the Empire Builder Industrial Park and Regions Hospital. After exiting downtown St. Paul, buses pass through St. Paul’s West Side and the District Del Sol Commercial Corridor and through West St. Paul’s commercial Robert Street corridor.
When the METRO Green Line opens on June 14, the route will also connect in downtown St. Paul to the Robert Street, 10th Street and Central stations.
Craig Henry, of St. Paul, was among a large group of customers who boarded downtown to continue south. Henry said he recently landed a job at the Red Cross and will take Route 68 to work every day. “I could drive but I’d rather sit here, listen to music or just relax,” he said.
For many customers, Route 68 is also a portal to downtown St. Paul where they can access several connecting routes. Like spokes in a wheel, bus routes oriented to hubs in downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis are called "Radial Routes."
Courtney Sheffield, 26, takes Route 3 from her Minneapolis home and transfers to Route 68 in St. Paul so she can reach Climb Theatre, where she works as a stage manager.
“I like taking the bus because it allows me to relax and just go over my day in my head,” said Sheffield, who rides transit nearly every day of the week.
Service on Route 68 has been improved as more customers realize the benefits of traveling by bus. In 2013, Route 68 and a number of other east metro routes saw expanded nighttime service and improved frequency. Route 68 buses now operate every 10 to 30 minutes during rush hour and every 20 to 30 minutes midday.
The improvements were designed in part to strengthen ties to the Green Line.
Anticipating more jobs and residents, Metro Transit and Dakota County are looking to further enhance transit in the Robert Street corridor. A study of transit options, including streetcars and Bus Rapid Transit on Robert Street or Highway 52, is ongoing.
If Arterial Bus Rapid Transit is implemented on Robert Street, new stations, buses and technology would be built south of the State Capitol, speeding trips up to 21 percent.
In 2013, Route 68 saw almost 1.1 million boardings and an average of more than 3,000 customers a day. By 2030, as many as 7,000 daily customers are projected to ride BRT and regular route service in the Robert Street corridor. Route 68 would continue, though on a slightly different alignment.
BRT would build on a long transit tradition in the Route 68 corridor. Horse-drawn streetcars ran on both Jackson and Robert streets until electric streetcars began running on the corridor. A bus ran to South St. Paul via Robert Street beginning in the 1920s and streetcars were fully replaced by buses in 1938 – more than a decade before streetcars would disappear from St. Paul entirely.
Whatever comes next, customer Joseph Donovan, of St. Paul, said he’s grateful to have Route 68. Without a car, Donovan has ridden for the last three years and uses the bus at least three times a week to get to work and appointments. “It’s nice knowing the bus is always going to be there,” he said.
Route 68 At a Glance
Type: Urban Local
Service: Route 68 buses travel on Larpenteur Avenue West and Jackson Street north of downtown St. Paul. South of downtown, buses operate on Robert Street to Thompson or Marie avenues, where they continue east then south on 5th Avenue South towards Inver Grove Heights. The southern terminal for Route 68G, the longest Route 68 branch, is the Inver Grove Heights Walmart at 9165 Cahill Avenue. Route 68 buses run approximately every 10 to 30 minutes during rush hour and every 20 to 30 minutes midday and evenings. Weekday trips operate between around 5:30 a.m. and 1 a.m.
Route length: Approximately 16 miles
Stops: 174 northbound stops; 174 southbound stops
Vehicles: 40-foot hybrid-electric and standard buses
Ridership: Nearly 1.1 million customers boarded Route 68 buses in 2013, with an average of more than 3,000 daily boardings.
History: Horse-drawn streetcars ran on Jackson and Robert streets until they were replaced by electric streetcars. Bus service began on Robert Street in the 1920s and fully replaced streetcars in 1938.
Future: When the METRO Green Line opens on June 14, Route 68 customers will be able to transfer to light rail at the Robert Street, 10th Street and Central stations. Robert Street is one of a dozen corridors identified for possible Arterial Bus Rapid Transit service. If implemented, new stations, buses and technology would be built on Robert Street south of the State Capitol, speeding trips up to 21 percent.