The search for a bus that looks like a train is over.
Dakota County Board members have chosen a sleek bus with many windows for the new bus rapid transit system planned to launch on Cedar Avenue in 2012. The design prompted a "wow" from at least one selection committee member.
Now it's just a matter of getting the vehicles here on time.
The order of seven buses from Nova Bus still is contingent upon the Metropolitan Council's final approval in December of the bus choice and operating funds for Cedar Avenue.
"We're taking as quick action as possible to get the buses here," said Joe Harris, the Dakota County Board chairman. "We fully realize our decision was backed up by a couple of months."
The operating funds, in particular, have been a sticky issue, as the original allotment from the Met Council disappeared when the Legislature axed $51.8 million from the transit budget. That prompted the Met Council to delay the Cedar Avenue bus purchase until more money could be found to pay for service.
A new funding plan that relies on shifting a federal grant from Interstate 35W to Cedar Avenue and an additional contribution from Minnesota Valley Transit Authority is working its way through the approval process. Still, the delay in ordering the buses could push back the start date of the bus rapid transit system.
As a committee searched for the best BRT bus, manufacturer Nova said it could deliver the vehicles between Oct. 1, 2012, and Jan. 1, 2013.
Officials had been hoping for a firm Oct. 1 delivery date, allowing about a month for training before a November 2012 launch of the busway.
But Commissioner Tom Egan said the Nova buses are worth waiting for to fulfill the goal of giving riders an experience akin to riding a train.
"It has the greatest [light rail] feel and appearance and operation," he said. "That is the key thing we are looking for."
Bus rapid transit has been billed as a cheaper alternative to light rail. Instead of riding trains on tracks, passengers board sleek buses -- designed to mimic light-rail cars -- that travel along bus-only shoulder lanes.
Sam O'Connell, a transit planner for Dakota County who served on the bus selection committee, said the Nova had far more of a train-like feel than buses offered by three other companies. "When we walked on it, it was like walking onto an LRT vehicle," she said. "It was open and airy and streamlined and contemporary."
The bus, like a train, has level boarding, meaning people can step or roll on without going up steps.
The windows -- in front, on the sides and even one on the back of the bus -- were larger than those of the other buses. The interior finish was smooth, with many of the mechanical elements concealed.
Nova Bus representatives told the selection committee that the company has spent more than $3 million designing the interior of its BRT model, which is customized to the specifications of each transit agency.
"None of the pictures that you see really does it justice," O'Connell said.
Nova's vehicles are used on busways in New York City and Honolulu and in Halifax and Montreal, Canada.
The model that interests Dakota County has been on the market for about five years and was designed specifically for bus rapid transit, said company spokeswoman Nadine Bernard.
"This is what you want for BRT to attract people," she said. "It's modern. This is a fast lane. It's really a comfortable passenger environment."
The 40-foot buses are expected to cost $450,000 to $550,00 each.
If the Met Council approval comes through as planned, Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, the agency that will operate the bus service, will order seven of them to launch the station-to-station service between Apple Valley and Bloomington next year.
The service plan for the corridor, also approved by County Board members on Tuesday, calls for buses running in both directions every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 30 minutes on weekends.
The $112 million busway initially will have six stops -- 28th Avenue, Mall of America, Cedar Grove, 140th Street, 147th Street and the Apple Valley Transit Station.
Roadwork on the busway is about half finished and will resume in spring 2012.
Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286