Editor’s note: The following commentary was submitted on behalf of several mayors and legislators. They are listed below.
Interstate 35W is a big deal — both for cars and for transit. I-35W has the highest transit ridership of any bus corridor in Minnesota, comparable to the light-rail Blue Line. However, incredible economic growth means we need to redesign I-35W to meet today’s needs to avoid future gridlock and stagnation.
Fortunately, a bipartisan coalition of local and state officials, a model of cooperation for our region and state, has been working for many years on a new vision for I-35W. At the center of this vision is the Orange Line bus rapid transit (BRT) project. Orange Line BRT will finally put transit in the fast lane, with buses traveling in a priority center lane all the way from Burnsville to downtown Minneapolis. The line will provide frequent, all-day service in both directions, including evenings and weekends, with the same reliability as light rail.
There is consensus among Minneapolis and the southern suburbs. Residents, businesses, the Metropolitan Council, legislators and local elected officials from Minneapolis, Richfield, Bloomington, Burnsville and Lakeville strongly support the Orange Line.
No longer will current express-bus riders have to worry about their return trip at unusual times. If a commuter has to work late, or if a parent has a sick child in the middle of the day, there will always be an Orange Line bus ready to take them home. And the many people whose potential jobs do not have 8-to-5 hours can access jobs previously unavailable to them.
The Orange Line and its innovations will have huge benefits for the whole region. The line will have far more riders than any other bus-rapid-transit line in Minnesota. By running BRT in the center lanes that extend into downtown, we will maximize lane capacity. The line will carry a whopping almost 30,000 daily riders by 2040, making this the best-value large transit project in Minnesota and a model for other freeway redesigns.
Alarmingly, last month, the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), which consists almost entirely of county commissioners from five metro counties, started the process of withdrawing its financial support for the project because of an internal squabble.
The Star Tribune’s July 29 editorial “Transit projects reach perilous pass” correctly asserts that the CTIB’s proposal to withdraw funding is a “serious blow to a project that has been in the works for more than 15 years and is crucial to maintaining mobility in the busiest stretch of freeway in the Upper Midwest.”
Fast action is needed on the part of Minnesotans. The Orange Line faces a Sept. 2 deadline to seek federal transit dollars, which will supply the last funds needed to complete the vision. Metro residents need to contact their county commissioners at the CTIB and demand that they approve previous commitments to the Orange Line.
The need for bus rapid transit on I-35W is not in dispute. It is a cost-effective and popular way to provide choices for commuters, address congestion, enhance mobility, improve air quality and provide access to jobs.
The timing for the CTIB’s potential withdrawal of support is particularly problematic as the Legislature contemplates $12.5 million for the Orange Line and $25 million for a new interchange at Lake Street to be tightly coordinated with the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s long-planned reconstruction of I-35W’s connections to I-94. Inaction by the CTIB would unravel both road and transit improvements, which would increase costs and traffic delays due to a longer construction period.
The CTIB action jeopardizes the new station planned for Lake Street, where the current bus stops are at the top of a long flight of crumbling stairs that only the most able-bodied can climb. The bus stops are an inhospitable place to wait — at the side of the busiest freeway stretch in the state with little shelter from the weather, auto exhaust and salt spray. The new station in the center of the freeway will allow buses to stay in the fast lane and maintain reliability.
The Orange Line will be on the CTIB’s agenda at its meeting on Wednesday. We strongly urge the CTIB to reconsider its ill-advised proposal to abandon the Orange Line, and we urge it to work with its long-standing partners to secure the remaining funds needed to build one of the region’s most important and needed transit projects.
This commentary was signed by Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz; Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead; Richfield Mayor Debbie Goettel; Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges; Lakeville Mayor Matt Little; state Rep Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis and the ranking member of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee; state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis and chair of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee and Budget Division; state Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis and minority leader of the Minnesota House; state Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis and deputy majority leader of the Minnesota Senate; state Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan; state Sen. Melissa Halvorson Wiklund, DFL-Bloomington; state Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis; state Rep. Sandra Masin, DFL-Eagan, and state Rep. Linda Slocum, DFL-Richfield.