A $150 million bus rapid transit line connecting downtown Minneapolis and Burnsville could be in jeopardy.
The Orange Line, planned to run 17 miles along Interstate 35W, is slated to open in 2019. But after a legislative session that failed to pass a bonding bill, and a shake-up on the metro-area board that funds regional transit projects, it’s unclear whether there will be enough money to complete it.
The bulk of Orange Line funding, about $120 million, is expected to come from the federal government and the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), a powerful but little-known body that uses taxes levied in Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties to fund regional projects.
But on Tuesday, the Dakota County Board finalized its decision to leave CTIB. Dakota County officials have said they put more money into CTIB than they get back, and that it doesn’t support the kinds of projects the county needs — namely, transportation that runs on roads and not rails.
The County Board’s vote came a week after CTIB decided against immediately filling a gap of more than $12 million for the Orange Line left by the failed bonding bill, an action that several Dakota County officials interpreted as retaliation for the county’s withdrawal from CTIB.
Without that money, the Metropolitan Council project could face cash flow problems by the end of the summer.
In a statement, Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck said the regional planning agency’s commitment to the Orange Line hadn’t changed.
“We will continue to work with our local partners to secure the remaining local funding, so we can continue to build out the regional transit system the metro needs to be competitive with other peer regions,” he said.
Later, Duininck said that “this isn’t the best mode to fund transit, but we’ll continue to work together.”
While most Dakota County commissioners seemed anxious to leave CTIB and start funding their own projects, Board Chairwoman Nancy Schouweiler — who cast the lone dissenting vote Tuesday — said she thought the decision was premature. Funds are up in the air for the Red Rock Corridor transitway between St. Paul and Hastings, as well as the Red Line bus service linking the Mall of America and Apple Valley, she said.
“What do we do about these projects?” Schouweiler said. “There’s still a lot of questions out there that we don’t have answers to.”
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a vocal transit advocate who is chairman of the CTIB board, said provisions were made for counties to withdraw from CTIB in an “orderly manner so the organization would remain stable.” CTIB will move forward with its projects, he said, including the Orange Line and the proposed Southwest and Bottineau light-rail lines.
McLaughlin added, however, that Dakota County must figure out how to pay for half the operating expenses for the Red and Orange lines that CTIB was expected to cover.
Dakota County isn’t officially out of CTIB until 2019. Between now and then, it will continue to levy a transportation sales tax that will go into CTIB’s coffers, but it will have less say in what the body does.
The Met Council is requesting that CTIB commit about $45 million in August for the Orange Line. That money would be used to leverage federal dollars.
At Tuesday’s County Board meeting, commissioners raised concerns about whether money from CTIB will come through. Commissioner Tom Egan described the CTIB vote to table funds for the Orange Line as retaliation for Dakota County’s decision to leave.
“These are some of the games that are being played,” he said.
But Egan said he’s hopeful that, by August, the initial reaction will have subsided.
“We can get along, and I think we can get a lot of things done,” he said. “We have to work together. We have to.”