The Orange Line bus rapid transit (BRT) is on the road to completion in 2021 after the federal government announced Wednesday it would deliver $74 million in funding for the project.
The federal financial boost caps the resuscitation of the line between Minneapolis and Burnsville, which was imperiled at times by funding snags at the state and county levels. It will bring all-day mass transit to the southern Twin Cities metro and provide access to thousands of jobs, while alleviating traffic congestion along the busy Interstate 35W.
“This is great news,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement provided by the Metropolitan Council. “The Orange Line BRT project is a critical part of building a 21st Century transportation system in Minnesota.”
The new federal money covers half the line’s $150 million cost. The other half has already been approved from a variety of sources closer to home, including Hennepin and Dakota counties as well as the state’s bonding bills.
The 17-mile Orange Line will run along Interstate 35W, the region’s busiest express bus corridor that now sees more than 200,000 cars and trucks daily.
The corridor sees 14,000 transit rides per day, a number projected to surpass 25,000 as options increase, according to the Met Council.
Bus-rapid transit service is similar to light rail. Passengers pay before boarding. Buses arrive frequently — every 10 minutes during peak times. The buses also use dedicated transitways to avoid traffic.
Unlike light rail, the Orange Line BRT has seen bipartisan support from local elected officials, state officials and its federal delegation, Met Council Chairwoman Alene Tchourumoff said in a statement.
The Orange Line is the second major Metro Transit project to advance in recent weeks. Southwest light rail cleared a key federal hurdle earlier this month when the FTA notified the Met Council that it will likely pay for close to half the cost of that line linking downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. That allows construction to begin; officials will hold a ceremonial groundbreaking Friday.
The Orange Line will be the first highway bus rapid transit in the region, said Jessica Treat, executive director of Move Minnesota, a transportation reform advocacy organization.
“I’m excited what it means to a really congested corridor,” she said. “It’s not a big-ticket item like the Blue and Green light rail lines. We want our agencies to be smart with investments. And this is a poster child for that.”
The Orange Line route along I-35W links business headquarters from Burnsville’s “Heart of the City” to Best Buy in Richfield, the Southtown Shopping Center in Bloomington and Target Corp. in downtown Minneapolis. Buses will travel on Marquette and Second avenues downtown.
“Affordable and efficient transportation are a necessary mainstay for any major city, and Minneapolis is no exception,” said Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. “A developing and growing workforce is not growing or developing if they can’t get to jobs from their home.”
The new BRT line will have stations at Lake Street, 46th, 66th and 76th streets south, American Boulevard, 98th Street South, Nicollet Avenue and Burnsville Parkway. The project will include a transit-only underpass of Interstate 494 with direct access to Best Buy headquarters.
It’s expected to provide access to 198,000 jobs, including 56,000 of them outside downtown Minneapolis.
“The Orange Line will improve mobility for tens of thousands of people who rely on transit on a weekly basis,” Tchourumoff said. “It will also improve the traveling experience for hundreds of thousands who commute along I-35W each day.”
Some construction of the Orange Line and its Lake Street station has already begun as part of Minnesota Department of Transportation’s upgrade of I-35W in south Minneapolis, which helped lower the costs on both projects, said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.
“There was a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth over the federal funding, but we were always confident it would come through,” he said. “It took some courage to start building the Orange Line before we knew if the money would come through. This is another giant step forward.”
An extension of the Orange Line to Lakeville is also envisioned in future years.
Burnsville Public Works Director Ryan Peterson said it’s a great relief that federal funding finally came through, and the state “will get a lot of bang for its buck.”
“We’ve been trying to get this for a long time,” he said. “Having two stops in high density areas of the city will really help the residents and businesses of Burnsville.”
Federal Transit Administration acting Administrator K. Jane Williams announced the selection of the Orange Line project in a conference call, noting the grant was the full amount that had been sought and that the federal government is working “really closely” with the Twin Cities on the project.
Met Council officials said the project has one remaining minor step before the funding is released in the next couple of months.
Minneapolis was one of five grant recipients announced Wednesday.
The Orange Line is an important investment in the region’s economic development and will connect hundreds of thousands of people each year to jobs and businesses across the metro area, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith said in a statement.
“It represents a boost to our state’s quality of life,” she said.
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