Drivers along Interstate 35W in south Minneapolis may have noticed a strange looking structure rising in the middle of the freeway.
Workers at 35W and 46th Street are putting up a bus rapid transit, or BRT, station. When it's complete it becomes the first station on a bus rapid transit line stretching from the suburb of Lakeville to downtown Minneapolis.
The two-story-tall, glass-walled bus rapid transit station sits on either side of the 46th Street bridge where it crosses over the interstate.
Metro Transit general manager Brian Lamb says when the first phase of service begins later this year, passengers from local buses can connect with freeway buses.
"Some of the local routes will actually stop right on the bridge," Lamb said. "People will be able to go downstairs or an elevator down to the freeway level in a climate-controlled environment and then catch, on a timed basis, an express bus that goes between downtown Minneapolis and suburban areas."
Lamb says money to operate the first phase of service will come from Metro Transit's existing operating budget.
Yet to be found is money to complete the line.
When it is completed, half of the annual operating cost of about $7 million will come from the quarter-cent sales tax being paid currently by residents of Anoka, Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties.
State Rep. Frank Hornstein, a south Minneapolis Democrat who helped craft the legislation creating the BRT service, says eventually the line is planned to serve Lakeville, 20 miles south of Minneapolis.
"We envision Park and Ride and on-line stations through Bloomington, Burnsville, down to Lakeville," Hornstein said.
Lamb says planners are considering Lake Street at Interstate 35W or Interstate 494 at 35W for the second station to be built by 2015.
Advocates say bus rapid transit is a cheaper alternative to light rail.
Like rail, the proponents argue, BRT runs on a set route at set times.
True BRT systems have a dedicated lane so they can maintain a reliable schedule.
The 35W BRT line approaches a textbook definition because it has a lane protected from traffic at the stations and then uses median or shoulder lanes along the freeway route.
There are 18 other BRT services in cities around the U.S. that are either running or in development.
The fanciest ones have special vehicles that resemble passenger rail cars with doors on either side.
Lamb says the 35W bus service will use regular Metro Transit buses at first.
And, like any large project, the BRT service on 35W has a tumultuous history.
When early proposals for transit on the freeway emerged in the 1980s one plan called for light rail.
But the price tag -- more than $1 billion even then -- was considered out of reach.
Bus rapid transit might not have happened either except for some fortunate timing.
Lawmakers and city officials moved fast recently to apply for a federal grant funding a range of new transit services.
When the $133 million in federal money was awarded to the Twin Cities, some state money was added to the winnings.
A portion of the total, $90 million, is being spent on improved transit services along 35W including BRT.
Lamb says the public can view and comment on plans for the line beginning as early as next week.
"Over the course of the next month, month and a half, we're going out to the local communities and get customer input before we bring this whole thing back to our council for approval in August and then we'll start the service in December," he said.
When money is found a completed 35W BRT service will be part of a system that includes another bus rapid transit line on Cedar Avenue serving southern Twin Cities suburbs.
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