Northstar Line just the beginning for transit projects

Northstar Light Rail line
The new Northstar Light Rail line will run from downtown Minneapolis through Big Lake, Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley. Service begins on Nov. 16.
MPR Photo/Jeff Jones

With Monday's start of the brand new Northstar commuter rail service drawing near, area lawmakers and transit officials are turning their sights to the future.

Most of the next big Twin Cities transit development projects are in the planning stages, but other, smaller ones are just around the corner.

They aren't as head turning as a new train service, but the double bus lanes scheduled to open early December in downtown Minneapolis is a big deal. Thousands of express bus passengers who ride in and out of downtown each weekday won't have to wait as other buses in the rush hour queue load passengers.

Loaded buses will be able to pull out into the passing lanes on 2nd Avenue and Marquette and head out, saving riders a few to many minutes on their trip. The bus lanes are part of the Urban Partnership Agreement - $188 million in federal and state dollars.

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That money also pays for the next transit development.

Double-wide bus lanes
The double-wide bus lanes still being finished on Marquette and on 2nd Avenues in downtown Minneapolis are part of the Urban Partnership Agreement.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Metro Transit's Bob Gibbons said construction begins next year on the first piece of a bus rapid transit system on 35W. There'll be a bus lane in the middle of 35W and the first BRT station at 46th Street and 35W in south Minneapolis.

Express buses will be able to pull of the Minnesota Pass lane into the station and collect customers headed into downtown and drop off customers not headed into downtown, who will then go up one level to the 46th Street bridge to where crosstown bus service will operate.

Future of rail

The region's next major transit development is a bit further off. Scheduled to be completed in 2014, the Central Corridor light rail line will be similar to the Hiawatha light rail service.

The Central Corridor line would run along University Avenue from downtown St. Paul to the University of Minnesota, where it will follow Washington Avenue into downtown Minneapolis.

Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough expects federal government approval to enter final design next month so construction can begin next summer.

"We have to be able to go out for those bids in early 2010 and award those contracts so we can start construction," McDonough said. "In Minnesota, we do have windows of opportunity to get more construction done than at other times of year, and we don't want to miss the construction season coming up in 2010."

Preliminary construction has already begun along the Central Corridor route with the moving of utility poles and other preparation for work.

There only possible derailment for the Central Corridor service is a melodrama playing out between the University of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Council.

Both disagree on ways to address the U's concerns about noise and electronic interference as the trains pass through campus. Minnesota Public Radio reached a deal with The Metropolitan Council over similar concerns earlier this year.

Twin Cities transit development is following a plan, but all the future pieces rely on finding money. If Central Corridor is built, the next big transit development may be the Southwest light rail service between Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis.

Hennepin County commissioners, including Gail Dorfman, recently recommended their preferred a route along the so called Kenilworth trail through Minneapolis, into St. Louis Park, to Hopkins and then a jog south to Eden Prairie.

"We spend two years now looking at environmental issues, moving into preliminary engineering, deciding where stations should be," Dorfman said. "[We're] continuing to work with the neighborhoods, to make sure we can mitigate the neighborhoods that this runs through that this can work for them."

After the Southwest line, one possibility is the proposed Bottineau line from north Minneapolis to Maple Grove.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat supports the idea.

"I would hope we'd be just two years later than Southwest," Opat said. "Maybe even sooner than that; so much is riding on the new federal transportation authorization bill."

That federal transportation bill holds the key to a lot of transit wish lists. Minnesota congressman Jim Oberstar is proposing spending $500 billion in federal dollars over the next six years on transportation.

So far, the bill is on hold while Congress debates health care reform, and no one knows what the appetite will be after that for another major spending package.