As Metro Transit bus operator Byron Phillips crossed Church Street and continued east on Washington Avenue, he did something he’d never done before. He steered the 40-foot bus to his left and drove straight onto the METRO Green Line’s light rail tracks.
Phillips’ move will be repeated by some 1,500 bus operators in the coming weeks as they are trained ahead of the opening of the Washington Avenue Transit/Pedestrian Mall, which cuts through a busy commercial area on the University of Minnesota campus. Bus drivers for the U of M’s Campus Connector, SouthWest Transit and Minnesota Valley Transit Authority are receiving similar training.
Set to open on Dec. 7, the Transit/Pedestrian Mall puts buses and light-rail trains on the METRO Green Line on the same part of the street between Walnut and Church streets. Lanes for bicyclists and emergency vehicles sit on the north and south sides of the three-block area while the Green Line’s East Bank Station and other pedestrian amenities sit in the middle of the corridor.
Facing this new environment for the first time, Phillips was unsure how to react. But after making a pass through the area he said he thought it would be easy to get used to driving on the tracks.
“At first I was thinking ‘Oh boy,’ but it’s not that bad,” he said after moving slowly through the corridor with an instructor and two other operators in training. “There’s nothing jolty or bumpy about the ride at all.”
For now, operators are training in a fenced-off environment without trains. But activity on the Transit/Pedestrian Mall will pick up when buses return later this year and trains begin running in mid-2014.
Around 225 Green Line trains are expected to pass through the area every day. Another 20 bus routes will meanwhile make around 1,200 trips down the Transit/Pedestrian Mall each weekday. The level of bus service is consistent with activity before the Transit/Pedestrian Mall was closed in mid-2011 for Green Line construction.
Signals will be used to manage bus and train movements, keeping them at least 40 feet apart at all times. There will be no bus stops between Church and Walnut streets. Customers will board at Coffman Memorial Union, just west of Church Street, and at Oak Street on the east end.
Bus drivers are also being trained to travel at speeds of no more than 15 miles per hour and to communicate with supervisors to determine how to proceed if an emergency vehicle enters the area.
Special street markings will be used to guide bicyclists crossing at intersections while pedestrian traffic will be directed to designated sidewalks.
“For a bus driver it’s a pretty easy maneuver: you make a lane change to the left to get on and a lane change to the right to get off,” said Dan Stoffer, assistant manager of training for Metro Transit. “What makes it more challenging is just all of the other things going on around you.”
Metro Transit’s operators began training on the Transit/Pedestrian Mall Oct. 13 and are driving on the tracks for an hour each morning and afternoon, depending on the construction schedule. The plan is to have all Metro Transit operators certified by the end of the year.
Similar to certifications for operating on the Marq2 corridor and the I-35W and 46th Street Station, the training comes in addition to regular education trainers routinely go through.
Denny Johnson, an instructor leading the driver training, said he’s been encouraged by what he’s seen so far. While the opening of the Green Line is exciting, he believes the novelty of buses traveling on train tracks will diminish as more buses and trains begin using the Transit/Pedestrian Mall.
Similar operations are in effect in cities around the world, and peer regions of the Twin Cities including Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Sacramento and Seattle. Johnson also compared the Transit/Pedestrian Mall to Nicollet Mall, a transit-only corridor that fills with pedestrians on summer days with farmer's markets.
“We're not used to the visuals but this isn't really all that different from Nicollet Mall,” he said. "If all stay aware and operate professionally, we can do this well and without incident."
> Washington Avenue Transit/Pedestrian Mall
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Photo: Denny Johnson, instructor, drives east on the Washington Avenue Transit/Pedestrian Mall during recent training. Below right, a bus travels east on the Transit/Pedestrian Mall during a training exercise.