If the rapid bus and light-rail transit network of Twin Cities planners’ dreams is to become a reality anytime soon, Metro Transit is going to need more friends at the 2016 Legislature than it found in 2015. Last session, Metro Transit had to stave off House GOP-proposed cuts in basic bus services, and got nowhere with its requests for the final pieces of matching funds for Southwest light rail, aka the Green Line extension, and the bus rapid transit Orange Line.
Last week, a quest for politically potent friends brought a Metro Transit tour bus and a team from the Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit, to a parking lot outside the headquarters of the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce. From there, they set out to acquaint Bloomington business leaders with the geography, economic potential and state funding needs of the Orange Line — and to mention that a transit line of another mode proposed to run just west of town is in even more urgent need of support.
We hope that “nice ’n’ easy” courtship strategy proves effective. The Bloomington Chamber is friendly toward transit in general and tacitly supportive of the Green Line’s extension through its link with the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. But more than tacit backing will be needed from the Twin Cities business community to secure the state funding in 2016 that the next links in a regional rapid transit network require. To sell transit skeptics among House Republicans, the business community will have to engage in some noisy advocacy.
The proposed bus rapid transit Orange Line looked good to the Bloomington employers on the tour. The line would serve the Interstate 35W corridor from downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville with train-lookalike buses beginning in 2019. It’s projected to be a workhorse, serving 25,600 riders per day by 2040, up from 14,000 on I-35W buses today. More than 200,000 people work within a 10-minute walk of the line. It’s enthusiastically backed by Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People, a leading south-metro social-services agency that stresses the importance of transit in allowing low-income people access to basic necessities.
But while the Orange Line seeks $12 million from the Legislature, that’s not make-or-break money for the project. It has enough federal, regional, county and local commitments to begin construction in 2017 as planned, Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck said. A $12 million state contribution is needed for the line’s planned Lake Street station to proceed.
More urgency — and controversy — attaches to the light-rail Green Line extension from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. Without $135 million — an 8.5 percent share of total project costs — somehow provided by the Legislature this year, chances are good that the project will fall out of the federal funding queue. That could stall for a decade or more the dream of building a true transit network in the metro area.
That would be a shame. The economic, environmental and quality-of-life benefits of transit are increasingly evident, and demand is growing. This year, Metro Transit is on track to provide a million more rides than it did in 2014.
The slow, line-by-line development of the Twin Cities rapid transit network in the past two decades has invited a focus on the merits of particular lines or segments of lines rather than the whole. As a result, the value of the metrowide system that planners envision may be underappreciated. Policymakers may not see that when multiple transit lines are interconnected, ridership on the whole system grows faster.
That understanding is needed at the 2016 Legislature. Metro Transit tour leaders may have been showing off the Orange Line last week, but they were trying to recruit advocates for an entire system.