Three major bus rapid transit projects going nowhere fast

Buses only
Minnesota's only BRT system is the University of Minnesota's service among three campuses in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Half, or about 3 miles, is on a transit-way for buses only.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

The bus rapid transit (BRT) closest to rolling is the Cedar Avenue project. Ground may be broken in 2007 and buses might roll from the southern suburban city of Lakeville to the Mall of America in Bloomington by 2010.

BRT, it's advocates say, is a cheaper mass transit alternative to light rail. BRT buses make limited stops and cruise along in their own lane or on the roadway shoulder and get preference at intersections over other vehicles.

Dakota County Commissioner Will Branning has been advocating transit on Cedar Avenue for three decades. Branning says everything would be happening faster, if more local money were available.

"That would be the quickest thing to do. Get the local communities to belly up and put up some kind of dollars to make it happen," he says.

One of the quickest and most substantial infusions of transit cash would come from a Twin Cities wide sales tax. Half a penny would raise about $250 million a year. A good number of Twin Cities area county commissioners and state lawmakers support the idea, but past proposals have died in the legislature.

Arguably the biggest bus rapid transit project, service along 35W from Minneapolis south to Lakeville is not just delayed, it's stalled. The holdup is the Crosstown Commons. Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, says until Minnesota can raise the more than $300 million needed to rebuild the intersection of 35W and state highway 62 there's no chance BRT will get going anytime soon.

"This project is not really being delayed because of a lack of commitment to transit on 35W, it's being delayed because of larger issues and problems about how we fund transportation in the state and particularly the Crosstown," he says.

After you
Part of the U's system is a true bus rapid transit service which means buses get preference at traffic intersections by triggering signals that allow them to proceed without stopping for other vehicles.
MPR Photo

The other big bus rapid transit project, the long awaited northwest corridor service, now called Bottineau Boulevard, from downtown Minneapolis to northwestern Twin Cities suburbs, isn't just delayed or even stalled. It appears to be headed back to the drawing board.

Hennepin County commissioner Mike Opat says the original plan didn't anticipate the rapid rate of population growth and development along the corridor. Running buses in between lanes of traffic and in some cases sharing the road, Opat says, wasn't the right decision. He says a new alignment, including buying some miles of railroad right-of-way, will accommodate more buses that make the run faster.

"We've sought to redesign it to be on one side of the road with fewer stops and be truly rapid," he says.

Once again money isn't the only factor in the hold up the Bottineau Boulevard project. When asked whether more money would make everything happen sooner, Opat says simply, "yes".

The price tag for finishing all three bus rapid transit projects amounts to about $170 million. However that's just part of the cost.

All three projects include widening roads for more traffic. Total road and bus costs of all the projects are unknown but probably approach half a billion dollars.

For that amount, the projects need federal money. Federal transit money is doled out by the Federal Transit Administration. And as Dakota County Commissioner Will Branning notes asking for federal money adds a lot of extra effort and time to projects.

The goal of the Metropolitan Council, the agency which oversees most Twin Cities transit, is to have the three BRT systems and other transit services up and running by 2030.

Dave Van Hattum, a spokesman for the advocacy group Transit for Livable Communities, says his organization's goal is to convince lawmakers to find the money to make that happen 10 years sooner.

"We have a legislative initiative to move that up to 2020 by just increasing funding for public transit," he says.

Complicating the funding picture is the prediction that one source of transit money will be smaller than expected.

Minnesota voters approved spending all, not just half, of motor vehicle sales tax (MVST) revenue on transportation including transit. But the pace of vehicle sales in Minnesota has slowed. That means unless vehicle purchases perk up there'll be as much as $40 million less over the next three years for transit than previously thought.

The money is a fraction of overall transit spending, but it's an unwelcome development as Twin Cities transit officials try to make progress on their goal of doubling transit ridership by 2030.

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