They built a south metro busway but now can't pay for buses

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2011 - 11:18 PM

Transit cuts in budget deal leave officials scrambling to get Cedar Av. service rolling after a decade of work.

A $112 million rapid busway on Cedar Avenue in the southern suburbs, nearly a decade in the making, suddenly doesn't have the money to pay for bus service once it opens.

The Metropolitan Council recently told Dakota County that funding to operate the buses was a casualty of the state budget deal. With construction well underway and new transit stations already dotting the corridor, officials are now scrambling to find a source of about $1 million annually to operate the transit line, hailed as a cheaper alternative to light rail.

"It really knocked the wind out of my sails," Dakota County Commissioner Nancy Schouweiler said. "We've got all this money put into it. We've got all this [road] work done, all these businesses are impacted and now we're not going to get buses?"

"This can't happen," said her colleague, Commissioner Will Branning, a determined supporter of the Cedar bus-rapid transit (BRT) project.

The plan was to order new buses right about now to operate the new station-to-station service that comprises BRT. But the Met Council, fresh off the budget deal's $51.8 million cut in transit funding, says it now can't afford to pay for expanded bus service -- including on the Cedar line -- so it won't order them. The money to pay for the buses themselves is already in hand.

It isn't just that the buses are new. The idea behind BRT is that it mimics light rail, with a more sleek and modern feel and more amenities than regular buses. It could take up to 15 months to receive the new buses once they are ordered, and BRT is supposed to open in November 2012 -- in about 15 months.

Representatives from Dakota County this month will attempt to drum up the needed funds when they meet with officials from the Met Council, which oversees transitways in the metro area, as well as bus service provider Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, and the multi-county board that divvies up the quarter-cent sales tax collected to pay for transit.

"We're not looking at big money," Branning said, noting the millions that have already gone into Cedar Avenue. "It's like peanuts."

Among the options being floated: using county property tax money, asking for more of the transit-dedicated sales tax funds and pushing the Met Council to reignite discussion of a 25-cent fare increase for metro buses and trains that could bring in millions of dollars.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, chairman of the multi-county group that doles out transit sales-tax funds, blames Republican legislators for the sudden search for operating money that transit planners were banking on. The Met Council was expected to cover half of the needed $2 million annual subsidy for Cedar while the counties covered the other half through the sales tax revenue.

"It was anticipated, but the Republican legislators slashed funding for operating costs," he said. "These people want to starve the transit system."

In a letter to Branning, Met Council Regional Administrator Pat Born said the cut spared most existing transit service but prohibits expansion of the system, including service between stations on Cedar Avenue.

"Because the Council is not able to commit operating funds to start up the Cedar Avenue BRT station-to-station service, our intent is to postpone procurement of buses until operating funds are identified," Born wrote.

Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, chairman of the state House Transportation Committee, said that plan is prudent. But he expressed doubt that the Met Council had truly dredged all its available funding sources before saying it didn't have the money for Cedar Avenue.

"This is not a done deal," he said.

Meanwhile, construction will continue on Cedar Avenue through next year as more stations meant to evoke light- rail stops rise and lanes are reconfigured to add bus-only shoulders on the north-south route between Lakeville and the Mall of America.

If operating money materializes in time, the new buses will zip from station to station between Apple Valley and Bloomington every 15 minutes or so, starting in late 2012. Plans call for two expansions of the service through 2030, adding more stops and extending station-to-station service south to Lakeville.

Existing commuter express bus service, already providing hundreds of rides daily in the corridor, will also continue.

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056

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