It’s an exciting time to be working on metro transit – if you’re in the right place.
Passengers board the Shakopee Transit Blue Xpress bus, which eventually could factor into any rapid busway that ran east-west across Eden Prairie and Bloomington. Such a route would try to capitalize on the employment concentrations along the 494 corridor.
The people planning the future of Twin Cities transit are hoping that in two years, they’ll be hosting the premier national convention in the field of urban rail transport.
Why 2014? Because that’s the year when the Twin Cities transit system might finally start to feel big-league: When light rail links Minneapolis and St. Paul amid progress on hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of transit infrastructure, from downtown hubs to rapid busways zipping through cornfields.
“There’s a lot happening across the metro at the moment,” said Lindsey Wollschlager of Richardson, Richter & Associates Inc., which consults in the region’s transit planning. “Exciting time to be working in transit.”
Emotions are mixed these days south of the river, though.
In Dakota County, residents will see one transitway open this year while two others are being planned and a fourth is partially in place but delayed for now. And Scott County is laboring to gain any sort of foothold in the system that is taking shape.
Michael Leek , transit chief in Shakopee, is only partly joking when he speaks of our new “five-county metro area.” He means the usual seven minus Scott and Carver, which opted out of a quarter-cent sales tax for transit in 2008. That decision is having immense consequences.
“Regional planning is regional planning — it shouldn’t stop at any county line,” Leek said. “We need to have a conversation about having a transitway here, too.”
Experts agree there’s a color line developing in Twin Cities transit: While lots of places fantasize about future transitways, the serious projects are those far enough along to be assigned a color-coded name as part of the Met Council’s so-called “Metro” system.
Conversely, if you don’t have a color, you don’t have a line. You’re just standing in line.
So, just which rail and bus lines are likely to happen any time soon, and which are still lines on a map representing hopes and dreams?
As it happens, the Counties Transit Improvement Board, the five-county entity that dishes out the fortune gathered in from the sales tax, has been pondering the same thing, querying planners of all the main lines about their latest expectations. That information, in distilled form, and subject to lots of future unknowns, is conveyed on the map accompanying this story.
Here’s a project-by-project look at the pieces of the picture most relevant to the south metro, starting with that which seems most realistic and trailing off with the most distant fantasies:
CEDAR AVENUE BUSWAY
If there’s a hot spot in the south metro transit scene in 2012, it’s Cedar Avenue.
There’s major roadwork, bus station construction and a flurry of other tasks to finish to launch the metro area’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) system between Apple Valley and Bloomington. Dubbed the Red Line, it’s supposed to open in November.
It’s not light rail, but it’s meant to evoke the idea of trains on a track. Sleek buses will roll along dedicated shoulder lanes and stop at distinctive stations every 15 minutes.
Plans call for additional stations and service into Lakeville sometime between 2012 and 2020, depending on growth and ridership, among other things.
In addition to being the region’s first BRT line — something that no doubt will be watched carefully — it’s the first major transit line to stretch beyond Hennepin and Ramsey counties, linking the city and suburbs with service that runs regularly throughout the day, not just during the commuter rush.
An unexpected traffic jam at Lake Street gummed up the launch plans for this bus rapid transit line, now delayed until at least 2016.
The route, known as the Orange Line, was supposed to launch this year, with stops along the freeway in Lakeville, Burnsville, Bloomington and Minneapolis. The stations are already in place south of the river, with the Kenrick Avenue park-and-ride in Lakeville and the Burnsville Transit Station on Hwy. 13, but there’s only commuter express bus service on I-35W for the time being.
AMERICAN BLVD. BUSWAY
Although it’s north of the river, the possibility of a rapid busway running east-west across Eden Prairie and Bloomington, partly on Interstate 494 and partly on a major street just to the south, is potentially important to Scott County and Dakota County commuters.
“We recognize the employment concentrations along the 494 corridor,” Leek said. “But it’s not as concentrated as downtown Minneapolis, so travel times are difficult.”
The BlueXpress bus service out of Shakopee “could tie into that,” added Leek’s Prior Lake counterpart, Jane Kansier , whose city partners in the effort. “But it’s a very difficult corridor to serve. It’s just plain faster for people to get into their cars.”
The creation of speedier links from Southwest Station in Eden Prairie over to the Mall of America in east Bloomington is being studied, and it would seem likely to emerge as a major priority, given all the jobs in the area. The first corridors to be set up are to be chosen this year, with operations beginning as soon as late 2014, with others coming between 2015 and 2030, the Metropolitan Council reports.
ROBERT STREET CORRIDOR
Momentum is starting to build around this transitway in eastern Dakota County, although it’s still pretty fuzzy and years away from actually opening.
Dakota County just hired out an “alternatives analysis” that will last into 2014, with the goal of measuring demand and a preferred mode of transit and route between St. Paul and Rosemount.
Ideas batted around have included streetcars, light rail, BRT and express bus service. The route could follow Robert Street or Hwy. 52, or some combination.
Already, however, some hurdles have surfaced, including the fact that the new Lafayette Bridge on Hwy. 52 will have bus shoulders but not the capacity to carry light rail. That surprised Dakota County commissioners, who thought legislation required light-rail capacity on the new bridge.
“It felt like there was something being planned there and, all of a sudden, it’s not there,” Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord said.
RED ROCK LINE
Beefing up bus service is the short-term priority along this corridor between the central cities and Hastings.
The longer-term goal, now planned as commuter rail by the 2020s, will be studied again later this year to factor in changing growth patterns and demographics and the possibility of high-speed rail between the Twin Cities and Chicago.
If the high-speed rail line comes through, some of the improvements needed for commuter rail could be made at the same time.
Until then, planners are looking at extending some form of commuter bus service — currently running as far south as Cottage Grove — down to Newport and Hastings.
HWY. 169 BUSWAY
Scott County’s decision against imposing the quarter-cent sales tax has left the possibility of a fast busway system serving its west-side commuters as a big question mark.
“The county is spending some of its own money to evaluate and understand the issues with 169,” said Deputy County Administrator Lezlie Vermillion , “and we need to have a dialogue with the Met Council the next time they update their overall plan.” The Hwy. 169 Coalition, a group stretching from Hennepin County down through the Mankato area, might tack on funding to look at connectivity to Mankato and St. Peter for long-haul commuters, she said.
“There’s nothing on the horizon and no plan for this, so it’s hard to discuss a timeline, but 2013, 2014, when the regional plan gets updated, will be the time to talk about the role of 169,” she said.
DAN PATCH LINE
Five years ago, there was a lot of interest in Scott County in overturning the legislative prohibition upon even mentioning the idea of a Dan Patch line — an idea that horrifies many in cities like Edina and
Lakeville, where high-end homes have been built right along the would-be line by folks who never dreamed it ever could carry passenger trains.
Today, the disappointing results and high subsidy costs for the region’s one commuter rail line, the Northstar line in the northwest metro area, have dampened interest in Dan Patch. The arrival of a boatload of federal dollars to jump-start the two busways on I-35W and Cedar also undercuts the rationale for the line, which would run from Northfield to downtown Minneapolis.
“Would it really generate enough riders with those other two travelsheds [I-35/Cedar and 169] sitting so close?” Vermillion asked. “When you can’t study it, can’t evaluate it, you don’t know.”
She does note, though, that it would be a river crossing, and that’s a valuable commodity. Edina is planning a major new development along the tracks, which is one reason there’s thought being given to what else might run along those tracks: a trolley, perhaps, or …
UNION PACIFIC RAIL
Railway tracks lead up from southwestern Minnesota through Shakopee to downtown St. Paul. If gas goes to $5 a gallon and beyond, who knows what interest might develop in a whole system of cross-state rail travel?
Already, a state study has ranked the Mankato-to-St. Paul stretch of the line as a Phase One project, the most hopeful category. But with a $6 billion to $10 billion pricetag for a whole statewide system, it seems a fantasy at the moment. And any line might well bypass Shakopee itself to save time.
Still, the state’s official rail plan does indicate that “the option for a high-capacity, high-speed rail transportation option is not only desirable, but affordable and even preferable as fuel prices rise and larger volumes of travelers shift to an available rail system in Minnesota and around the nation. Someday the line could link to high-speed rail to Chicago, not that the latter seems to be going anywhere these days.
SOUTHWEST CORRIDOR EXTENSION
The fact that the Bloomington Ferry Bridge was built with the structural ability to carry light-rail trains has some commuters in Scott County wondering about the potential for hopping a train all the way to downtown Minneapolis with multiple stops at big corporate sites in cities such as Minnetonka.
Dream on, say the transport professionals. Not in this millennium.
They would love to be taken even more seriously when it comes to linking their express buses to Southwest Station.
“We’ve had some broad input on that,” Vermillion said, “but when the Met Council isn’t the planning entity …” She trailed off with a chuckle, leaving the obvious unspoken: Scott County doesn’t have that much leverage with the Met Council itself, much less with the five-county transit consortium.
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