Metro Transit's plan to dramatically improve local bus service by overhauling several inner-city routes is having trouble getting funding, despite its modest price tag compared to other transit projects.
The agency said Wednesday that plans to fast-track a rapid bus line along Penn Avenue in north Minneapolis next year were no longer possible due to funding complications. That moves the likely construction date back to 2017, if funding for the $35 million project can ultimately be secured.
The so-called arterial rapid bus concept -- new to the Twin Cities -- would alleviate delays that plague local bus routes through pre-boarding payment systems, fewer stops, multiple-door boarding and traffic signal priority. Stops would feature heated shelters and real-time arrival information.
The first such project, the A Line on Snelling Avenue, is expected to open either later this year or in early 2016, said Metro Transit's bus rapid transit manager Charles Carlson. The agency has stated that one line would open every year following the A Line, but three plans to build other lines in 2016 have now fallen through.
That's partly because unlike large regional light rail and highway bus rapid transit projects, the new inner-city rapid bus routes are not funded through the quarter-cent transit sales tax administered by five metro-area counties. That means every line requires cobbling together grants and bonding dollars to get off the ground.
"It really points to the need to find a path to fund these," Carlson said. He hopes that with the launch of the Snelling Line, "Having something you can ride and touch and feel will help inform the picture.”
"Part of what we want to do with Snelling and the A Line is really show what these projects are," Carlson said. "Much like the way the Hiawatha project showed the regional what light rail could be."
The plan last year was to build the second line along West 7th Street in St. Paul, connecting downtown with the Mall of America and airport. But that was eliminated after St. Paul and Ramsey County expressed concerns about the line conflicting with other transit plans for the corridor.
Metro Transit then asked the Transportation Advisory Board -- which distributes the region's federal funding -- to reallocate West 7th's 2015 funding to a limited-stop bus project on East 7th Street, initially slated for 2016. That project is distinct from arterial bus rapid transit.
That left $12.3 million in available 2016 federal funding, previously slated for the West 7th Street and East 7th Street projects.
Metro Transit proposed sending that to a fast-tracked Penn Avenue aBRT line. But the Transportation Advisory Board recently decided that reallocated funds should only go to projects that have already passed through the region's selection process for doling out federal dollars -- which Penn Avenue has not.
There have been other hiccups, however.
Four years ago, Metro Transit successfully secured $7 million in 2016 federal funding intended to help build a rapid bus line on Chicago Avenue. In May 2014, however, they asked to reallocate that funding to the West 7th Street line, since it had become a higher priority.
That freed up $7 million in 2017, which Metro Transit suggested be used to fund Hopkins' request to build a downtown park-and-ride. The West 7th Line would then later be eliminated.
Kenya McKnight, who serves on the Transportation Advisory Board, said Metro Transit should have done more to temper public expectations after suggesting to move the West 7th funds to Penn Avenue.
”In my opinion, the idea that the Penn Avenue [project] could have been funded through the TAB should not have been a public discussion until folks knew that that was an absolute certainty," Mcknight said. "Because you created false hopes and expectations for my community and people were not happy about that.”
Buses now carry 26 percent of the people traveling on Penn Avenue every day, but comprise just 2 percent of the vehicles, according to Metro Transit. The Penn Avenue line is expected to run from the Brooklyn Center Transit Center to downtown Minneapolis (see route above).
The project is expected to occur in conjunction with a larger Hennepin County effort to reconstruct and invest in Penn Avenue, which is still being planned.
A number of other routes have also been studied for possible arterial bus rapid transit routes. See a full list of them here.