Shannon Willenering spent 25 years driving herself to and from work in downtown St. Paul. Her children grown, she decided last year that she could do without her car during the day and decided to try taking the bus instead.
She stopped into Metro Transit’s St. Paul Service Center and discovered Route 71 provided what was essentially door-to-door service between her South St. Paul home and her job at Securian.
After nearly a year of commuting on the bus – avoiding $140 in monthly parking expenses and the hassles of winter driving – she doesn’t have any plans to get back in her car. “I didn’t realize just how convenient it was,” Willenering said recently as she made her way to work. “Now I tell everyone to take the bus.”
Convenience is a selling point for many of those who use Route 71, which runs between Little Canada and Inver Grove Heights. On a recent weekday morning, several customers were found going to work and school on the bus even though they had the option of driving.
Lori Curtis is among those who were traveling southbound to work in downtown St. Paul instead of driving her car. Curtis said she has used Route 71 for more than a decade to cut her transportation costs and avoid the stresses of driving.
A Caribou barista, she said her half-hour commutes give her time to crochet, read or simply relax as she eases into the work day.
“I’ll be spending the whole day standing so it’s nice to be able to sit back and drink my coffee,” she said.
Todd Smith, of Stillwater, is among the newer customers to find their way onto Route 71. Smith took a job at a South St. Paul marketing firm at the beginning of the year and began using transit as a way to save money.
At least three times a week he takes Route 294 downtown and then transfers to Route 71 to get the rest of the way to the office, a 50-mile round-trip that costs him around $5.
“Paying to ride the bus versus driving, it’s not even a comparison,” he said of the savings.
Joshua Holmes, a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas, said money also drove his decision to take the bus. Though he just bought a car, he continues to use routes 71 and 63 to get to school using a College Pass, which provides unlimited rides for $140 to $175 a semester.
“That’s a lot cheaper than a parking permit, plus gas and everything else,” he said.
Saving money isn’t the only perk of taking Route 71, though.
Several southbound, early-morning commuters have gotten to know one another as they travel to and from work every day. For Perry Kapaun and Kelly Moore, the on-board connection was especially significant.
Kapaun and Moore went to school together 30 years ago in Fargo, N.D. and ran into each other on the bus when Moore began riding Route 71 earlier this year.
“We’re fully caught up now,” Moore said.
Route 71 At a Glance
Type: Urban local
Service: Route 71 trips start and end at different locations depending on the time of day. The longest trips operate between Little Canada Transit Center, at Rice Street and Little Canada Road, and the Walmart located off of Highway 52 in Inver Grove Heights. Traveling southbound, Route 71 buses go east on Little Canada Road to Edgerton or Westminster streets and enter downtown St. Paul on Robert Street. In South St. Paul, buses travel largely on Concord Street and west on 80th Street to Inver Hills Community College. On weekdays, buses run approximately every 15 to 30 minutes between 6 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. and every hour in the evenings. Service runs approximately every 30 minutes on Saturdays and every hour on Sundays.
Route Length: Approximately 17 miles
Stops: 171 northbound, 179 southbound
Vehicles: 40-foot standard diesel buses
Ridership: 501,709 customer boardings in 2013, with an average of 1,375 passengers per day
History: Route 71 grew out of streetcar lines on Concord Avenue in South St. Paul and Mississippi Street in St. Paul. The far north end of Route 71 on Edgerton Street was originally served by North Suburban Lines, the last independent private bus company to be acquired by the Metropolitan Transit Commission, the organization that eventually became Metro Transit. Service on McMenemy Street and in Inver Hills began in the 1970s.
Future: In downtown St. Paul, customers will be able to transfer to the METRO Green Line’s Robert Street Station from Jackson Street (a block east).