Claire Kirch could drive her own car on trips from Duluth to the Twin Cities and back.
But she'd rather not.
"I'd prefer taking the bus down because that way I can work on the way and on the way back," said Kirch, who lives near the University of Minnesota Duluth and occasionally travels to the Cities in her work as a reporter for Publishers Weekly.
Over the course of a year, millions of people travel between the Twin Ports and the Cities. A minority are like Kirch, preferring not to drive their own vehicles. Still others don't have a choice.
"I do not have a car, though I used to have two," wrote Andrew Hilfers, a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth, in an email. "One decided to burn down, and the other's transmission decided to stop being one piece. So, I am reliant on the bus. I also really dislike driving, so it's kind of an OK arrangement."
For those who can't or choose not to drive, at least a couple of alternatives are available. Minneapolis-based Jefferson Lines offers three bus trips in each direction daily. Groome Transportation, based in Richmond, Va., operates 10-passenger vans on 15 round trips daily. Known previously under local ownership as Skyline Shuttle, it primarily bills itself as a shuttle to the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, but it also has stops at the state Capitol in St. Paul and at the Mall of America.
There's certainly ample numbers of people moving between the two cities. Frank Loetterle, a project manager in the passenger rail division of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, has crunched the numbers in researching the planned Northern Lights Express - or NLX - rail service connecting Duluth-Superior and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Looking only at those who potentially could be served by passenger rail, he estimated 25.8 million people travel by personal vehicle between the Twin Cities and Duluth annually; another 46,000 travel via Jefferson Lines or Groome; and 180,000 travel by air.
Between the two current ground alternatives to passenger vehicle, Groome seemed to inspire more passion, both positive and negative, from people who responded to an invitation from comment by the News Tribune.
Mike Dilley, who lives in Duluth, said an early January trip with his wife and grandmother via Groome will be his last.
"The guy who was driving the van needs to be fired," Dilley wrote in an email. "His driving habits are dangerous. He was on his cell phone multiple times and filling out his trip log while driving 70 mph with poor road conditions."
In an emailed response, Groome spokesman Jason Deitz wrote the company's vehicles are equipped with technology that allows them to monitor driving habits.
"Safety is our top priority at Groome, and all drivers complete extensive safety training, background checks and driving record inspection," he wrote. "When there are reports of unsafe behavior, we take them very seriously and address each one individually."
Passengers in the Duluth area with concerns are encouraged to call Groome at (218) 724-4676 or fill out the "contact us" form on groometransportation.com/duluth, Deitz added.
Others reported better experiences.
Cheryl Burns of Finlayson, Minn., said in a voice message about Groome that "the drivers are all very good, and get amazingly on time even with questionable weather."
Burns, who catches the shuttle at the Victory Station in Sandstone, called it "a terrific service for us in that rural area."
Also a fan: Bruce Heaslip, 72, who lives in the Duluth Heights neighborhood. Heaslip prefers not to drive to the Twin Cities to visit his son's family, he said, but he called the shuttle a "great service."
"If you miss one, which I have ... an hour later there's another shuttle," he said.
Hilfers, whose family lives south of Rochester, Minn., likes and uses both, depending on his circumstances. Jefferson is convenient for him, he said, because he lives close to its Kirby Student Center pickup spot. He can stay with Jefferson all the way to Rochester, although it may require a layover in the Twin Cities. The buses usually aren't crowded, so he can stretch out.
Jefferson buses have Wi-Fi service, but it isn't always reliable, Hilfers wrote. The departure time of 6:45 a.m. isn't "super convenient."
He primarily uses Groome to get to Duluth after a flight into Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, Hilfers wrote. The drivers are friendly, the seats are "comfortable enough" and the frequency of service means he doesn't have to worry about matching his flight schedule with a transit schedule, as he does with Jefferson, he added.
The popularity of Groome's shuttle to the airport has allowed it to offer more frequent trips since 2016, Deitz wrote.
Jefferson Lines didn't respond to a request for an interview for this story.
Loetterle said Jefferson's primary market is college students, which is why it has passenger stops at both the University of Minnesota Duluth and the College of St. Scholastica.
"More than half of the college students in Duluth are from the Twin Cities," he said.
Kirch stopped using Groome after the company raised its prices, she said. A round trip with Jefferson costs between $50 and $60 depending on which option she chooses; Groome starts at $88 round trip, with a $10 add-on for pickup at a hotel.
She's happy with the Wi-Fi access on the bus and appreciates that there's a restroom on the bus, Kirch said. Taking the bus can take longer, but if she takes advantage of what Jefferson calls its "Rocket Rider," she can take the 7:10 a.m. bus from downtown Duluth and arrive in St. Paul by about 9:30 a.m.
But Kirch would prefer yet another option that isn't yet available: Rail.
"I think a train would be much more pleasant," she said. "It's going to cost more, but I tell you, I think it's worth it."
But when it comes, it might not cost more. The current thinking is that a one-way ticket on the NLX will cost between $30 and $32, Loetterle said.
The project is expected to cost $550 million, and is currently unfunded. Gov. Tim Walz's bonding proposal includes $11 million to leverage federal funding for state rail corridors, including the NLX route.
If the potential of future rail competition concerns Groome, they're not admitting to it.
"We look forward to any economic development opportunities that will have a positive impact on the Twin Ports," Deitz wrote.