A years-long bus feud between Lakeville and cities to the north may be over in a matter of weeks.
The Metropolitan Council, a key player in regional transit planning, has offered a deal to Lakeville that could bring two bus stations to the city by 2009 as part of plans to spend a $133 million federal grant to relieve congestion in the Twin Cities. In return, Lakeville residents would have to start paying a transit tax that homeowners in most metro-area cities already pay.
"This is really a one-time opportunity," Peter Bell, Met Council chairman, said Thursday about the offer, which was made last week. He said the city would get about $25 million in transit and road improvements.
"If Lakeville chooses not to come into the transit taxing district, those resources will be allocated elsewhere."
The offer, which the City Council must decide on by May 5, could end years of debate between elected officials in Lakeville, which doesn't have buses, and communities such as Apple Valley, where residents pay the tax and enjoy bus service provided by the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority.
"I'm looking forward to hearing what our residents have to say about this," said Lakeville City Administrator Steve Mielke, who called the offer "worthy of consideration." The city will hold an open house on Tuesday to gather input from residents before the council makes a decision.
The tax, which helps buy buses and build stations in the metro area, would cost the average Lakeville homeowner about $36 a year, the city said.
The offer outlines some improvements Lakeville hasn't seen before, Mielke said, as well as clarification about how many buses the Met Council would run out of each station. The deal would include:
•Construction by 2009 of two bus stops in Lakeville: a park-and-ride station at the site of an existing park-and-pool lot south of County Road 46 on Interstate 35, and a parking lot with a passenger waiting area on Cedar Avenue between 179th and 185th Streets.
•Funding for at least six express bus trips from the I-35 station to downtown Minneapolis during morning and afternoon peak traffic.
•Extension of existing bus service on Cedar Avenue to Lakeville, with at least five peak-hour trips a day.
•Midday, station-to-station service when it's available.
•Bus-only entrance and exit ramps connecting I-35 with the new station.
•By 2011, an extension of a high-occupancy/toll lane on northbound I-35 from Burnsville Parkway as far as the point, farther south in Burnsville, where I-35W and I-35E split.
Mielke said he was most intrigued by the toll lane extension, pointing out that Lakeville drivers would see "significant benefits" in congestion reduction at the I-35 split even if they don't ride the bus, and for an annual tax that would cost less than filling a tank of gas.
The city has resisted pressure to pay the transit tax for years, arguing that the Met Council has been unable to show that Lakeville would actually get bus service if residents paid up.
But with new transit funds available, notably the quarter-cent sales tax that was passed by the Legislature and approved by Dakota County this spring, that equation may have changed enough to get Lakeville leaders on board.
License plate surveys have shown that hundreds of Lakeville and Farmington residents drive north every day to board buses in Burnsville and Apple Valley, irking some local commuters who do pay the transit property tax. Last year, Apple Valley leaders even considered a plan to relieve overcrowding at a busy station on Cedar Avenue by excluding cars from Lakeville and other points outside the transit taxing district.
The bus dispute intensified this year when Rep. Shelley Madore, DFL-Apple Valley, introduced a measure to force Lakeville and neighboring Farmington to pay the tax, a move Farmington Mayor Kevan Soderberg called a "low, dirty trick."
That measure was killed in a legislative committee this month, but Madore said Thursday that a related bill to expand the taxing district to the entire seven-county metro area is still in play.
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016