Transit Gets All the Flack When the Super Bowl Comes to Town

There are typical football games: large, crowded events with intoxicated tailgaters and truck advertisements galore. Then there is the Super Bowl: a high-security event attended by superstardom where the average ticket price runs in the thousands.1 This year’s Super Bowl, denoted by “LII”, is to be hosted in Minneapolis at the US Bank stadium on Sunday, February 4. It has also created logistical and publicity crises for the Twin Cities’ own Metro Transit (MT), who must balance the concerns of their ridership base with the demands of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an agency which has classified Super Bowls as “Level 1” security events since September 11th, 2001.2 “Level 1” is an infrastructural survey classification under the Special Event Activity Rating (SEAR) scheme of the DHS’s Office of Infrastructure Protection (IP).

In preparation for the event, MT sent representatives to the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston, Texas. Their survey was conducted with a goal to examine how Houston’s transit operations were affected and administered.3 Travel and operation expenses were covered fully by the DHS and no tickets were offered to the reps. They found that Houston’s light rail system reached far above its normal ridership, and not only on Super Bowl Sunday (February 5, 2017) itself. In fact, the period between February 1st and 4th, 2017 rounded out the highest ridership in Houston’s Metro Rail history. Based upon Super Bowl tradition, transit systems in any hosting city are likely to be strained not only on game day, but for the two weeks of festivities leading up to the event. One critical difference, however, was discovered between Houston and Minneapolis’ respective stadiums: parking. Houston’s NRG Stadium is encircled by a broad swath of it, in part due to the clustering of the football and basketball arenas, in contrast to Minneapolis, where there is no formal parking directly associated with the stadium itself. Given the extreme difference in stadium geographies, it was very apparent that the situation was going to look much different for the Twin Cities.

Houston (left) and Minneapolis (right) aerial imagery. Photo Credit: Google Earth, 2018.

Half a year later, MT came up with a plan to block off access to the US Bank Stadium stop for 48 hours prior to the Super Bowl, in order to satisfy the security requirements determined for the site. Much of the justification for the decision to close off the station was leveraged on the fact that on game day, the only exits from the station will be toward the football stadium. At that time, the only accessible points to the MT Green and Blue Lines will be at the Mall of America and Stadium Village, both areas with significant parking surpluses to compensate for the absence of large on-site lots. Trains will still operate for MT customers from Union Depot in St. Paul and Prospect Park on the Green line; however, the blue line will remain completely closed off to those without Super Bowl passes. The stations available on game day are shown in yellow on the map below.

Minneapolis Transit Map (Modified)
Minneapolis’ Metro Transit Map. Photo Credit: Adapted from “Transitways Map,” Metro Transit, 2016.

To ameliorate the effects of the dedicated right-of-way service disruption, MT will provide buses for its customers that run between light rail stations with 10-15 minute headways for the 48 hour period of limited rail service rail service. This is the same service compensation provided when maintenance is performed on Metro Transit.4 However, demand for ridesharing and private vehicles will likely increase as well, adding to congestion and leaving buses further delayed in Minneapolis’ grid. MT has acknowledged that the alternative service will require additional patience from their customers, but their road-based alternative already would require this patience, excluding the heightened road congestion variable.5 Customers have taken to MT’s Facebook feeds to express concern.6

Additional concerns raised by the public since MT’s plan was unveiled pertain to the amount of public expenditure allocated to  service changes. MT has insisted that all costs will be covered by the heightened fees for Super Bowl riders ($30 for a game-day pass) and other Super Bowl-related revenues, but much of that money is dedicated to security and doesn’t yet account for employee hours spent in the co-operative planning process. After all, a majority of institutional spending will likely be set aside for payroll.

This negative public commentary is unfair though, as MT is simply attempting to enact a plan which satisfies its obligations to the DHS. This negative feedback may be in part due to MT’s role as the communicator of change. For instance, MT has created a handy site for Super Bowl goers, routed to /superbowl and with a bespoke cover photo displaying a group of joyous fans flailing their arms in the air.7 It is understandable that an inconvenienced MT commuter would perceive any semblance of co-operative marketing from the transit agency with the National Football League (NFL) as a privatization of their public transport institution.

In response to public disdain, MT’s Public Relations Manager Howie Padilla said, “What you just can’t get around is that the Super Bowl is an international event—it’s a high-level security event.”8 He’s right; when the Super Bowl comes to town it rather becomes the town. Perhaps, however, it would have been in the best interests of MT to point out the role of institutions of higher authority in shaping its actions, rather than provide a generalized overview to the public. Institutional accountability is often considered to be a best practice, but MT (or other agencies that have been in similar binds) would do best to distance itself from responsibility and play up its role as a problem-solver. Minneapolis doesn’t have lake-sized parking lots to supply its stadium, not many people would want a mass amount of possibly intoxicated out-of-towners driving in Minnesota in February, and decisions about access have been made upstream. Give transit a break, and if you are in Minneapolis during the Super Bowl, remember to thank your bus driver.

1Brinson, Will. “Want 2017 Super Bowl tickets? From the cheap seats to the absurdly expensive.” CBS , February 5th, 2017.

2 Belson, Ken. “Puzzle of Super Bowl Security Has to Include New Pieces.” New York Times, January 15th, 2014.

3 Moore, Janet. “Metro Transit sent reps to Houston for Bowl intelligence.” Star Tribune, February 13, 2017.

4 Metro Transit. “Super Bowl LII | Transportation Options | January 26 – February 4.” Metro Transit. (Accessed Dec. 26, 2017)

5 Harlow, Tim. “Metro Transit will give free rides for passengers using buses replacing LRT service during Super Bowl.” Star Tribune, November 16, 2017.

6 Olson, Rob. “Metro Transit faces blowback over Super Bowl plans.” Fox 9 News, November 15, 2017.

7 Metro Transit. “Super Bowl LII | Transportation Options | January 26 – February 4.” Metro Transit. (Accessed Dec. 26, 2017)

8 Olson, Rob. “Metro Transit faces blowback over Super Bowl plans.” Fox 9 News, November 15, 2017.

Featured image: Fans at Superbowl XLIII prior to kickoff in Tampa, Florida, 2009. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. 

About the Author: Troy Simpson is an undergraduate senior studying Geography and City and Regional Planning at UNC Chapel Hill and is currently a transportation planning intern with Transport Foundry in Raleigh, North Carolina. He lived both in Chicago, Illinois and Charlotte, North Carolina prior to his time in the Triangle Region. Troy spends his spare time riding his bicycle, rollerblading, tinkering with his Mini Cooper, and as a result, feeling planner’s guilt for being a car enthusiast.