Transit looks to get going in the south, west metro

It’s an exciting time to be involved in metro-area transit – if you happen to be in the right place.

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A Northstar train waiting to depart the Target Field Station. Planners hope to make the area more of a transit center with the $67.7 million Interchange Hub.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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The folks who are planning the future of Twin Cities transit are hoping two years from now to be hosting the premier national convention in the field of urban rail transport.

Why 2014? Because that’s the year when this area’s 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 linked installations, 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., staff to the five busiest counties involved. “Exciting time to be working in transit.”

More exciting in some places than in others.

In Hennepin County, officials are hoping to begin work on the Interchange transit hub, which would facilitate transit connections for light-rail, commuter train and bus passengers near Target Field.

Construction must begin this year if the hub is to be finished in time for the arrival of Central Corridor trains in downtown Minneapolis in 2014.

Two Hennepin transit lines also are in the planning stages: the Southwest Corridor light-rail line, which will run 15 miles from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, and the Bottineau Transitway, a 13-mile line from downtown Minneapolis to the northwest suburbs, which policymakers have yet to decide whether to make a busway or light-rail line.

But other places, like Dakota County, are seeing completion dates for their parts of the system pushed back for years from what had been promised.

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” — the usual seven minus Scott and Carver, two that chose against imposing a quarter-cent sales tax for transit in 2008 and are finding, per the warnings they heard at the time, that their decision could have immense consequences for a long time to come.

“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 that are far enough along to have been assigned a color-coded name as part of the Met Council’s so-called “Metro” system. If you have a color, that means you have a line.

Conversely, if you don’t have a color — a Red Line or a Blue Line or another such hue – you don’t have a line. You’re just standing in line.

So, just which rail and bus lines are likely to happen anytime 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 as to their latest expectations.

That information, in distilled form, and subject to lots of future unknowns, is conveyed in the map accompanying this story.

Here’s a project-by-project look at the pieces of the picture:
 
INTERCHANGE HUB

Transit advocates in the west metro area consider the $67.7 million multi-plaza and train platform in downtown Minneapolis’ North Loop the bow on their transit package. It will be just north of Target Field, where two light-rail lines, commuter rail, bus routes and a bike trail meet. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin describes it as the west metro’s counterpart to the Union Depot hub in downtown St. Paul.

But with perhaps a month to go before the Hennepin County Board needs to pull the trigger on the project, it still has a funding shortfall of $30 million. That gap soon may be narrowed — for instance, the Senate’s bonding bill includes $5 million for the Interchange, and other possible sources are being mined — but the county may have to agree to backstop funding so that the project can be finished before Central Corridor trains arrive in 2014.

SOUTHWEST LIGHT RAIL

It’s been a rocky winter for the Southwest Corridor, the next big-ticket transitway planned for the metro area’s light-rail system.

The proposed link to the southwest suburbs is expected to cost $1.25 billion, with the federal government paying for half. Twin Cities counties would pick up 40 percent, and the state would kick in $125 million.

Outside of Gov. Mark Dayton’s public works plan, which includes $25 million for engineering work, there hasn’t been much enthusiasm at the Capitol to fund the project. The House transportation committee left it off of its funding list, and it was nowhere to be found in the Senate’s bonding bill last week.

Dayton himself expressed concern when it looked like the Metropolitan Council would award an engineering contract for the line to the San Francisco firm that worked on the Interstate 35W bridge before it collapsed in 2007. The council tabled the action.

An environmental impact statement is being done for the Southwest line. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2014, with the line opening in 2018.

BOTTINEAU TRANSITWAY

The planning process has begun for the Bottineau corridor, with public open houses and an environmental review underway. The main decisions: whether it should be a busway or a light-rail line, and whether it should go to Maple Grove or Brooklyn Park.

Also to be decided is whether the south end of the line would go through Golden Valley or north Minneapolis.

The project has embarked on a long process to compete for federal funding. As a light-rail line, costs could run from $900 million to $1 billion; a busway would cost roughly half that. Officials hope that federal funds will cover half the cost, with the balance coming from the region, county and state.

The project’s timeline has it up and running by the end of 2018. But that doesn’t take into account the typical hiccups that occur along the way.

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 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 along the route every 15 minutes.

Future 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 bus rapid transitway — something that will no doubt be watched carefully — it’s the first major transit line to stretch beyond Hennepin and Ramsey counties, linking suburbanites to more urban areas, and vice versa, regularly throughout the day, not just during the commuter rush.

I-35W BUSWAY

An unexpected traffic jam at Lake Street gummed up the original 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 in 2012, 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 BOULEVARD 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 south of that freeway, 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 existing BlueXpress 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.

HWY. 169 BUSWAY

Scott County’s decision against imposing a quarter-cent sales tax within its borders 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 some dollars to look at connectivity to Mankato and St.
Peter for long-haul commuters.

“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.”

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 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, Northstar, have dampened interest in even thinking about 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 Dan Patch. The line 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 asks. “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 thought is  being given to what else might run along those tracks:  a trolley, perhaps.

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 from home up to downtown Minneapolis with multiple stops at big corporate sites in such cities 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 consortium.

Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this story.

David Peterson • 952-746-3285
Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286
 

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 from home up to downtown Minneapolis with multiple stops at big corporate sites in such cities 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 consortium.

Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this story.

David Peterson • 952-746-3285
Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286
 

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