Public transportation systems across Minnesota could get $856 million under the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill approved by the U.S. Senate last month.

That infusion over the next five years could prove transformative to transit service across the state, said Nuria Fernandez, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), during a visit Tuesday to the Twin Cities.

It's still unclear whether the federal infrastructure package will pass muster in the House; that's an ongoing battle. But the mere prospect of millions bolstering the coffers of local transit agencies is a rare bit of good news after the COVID-19 pandemic decimated public transportation ridership.

The infrastructure funding, if realized, "is the most significant transit investment in the nation's history," Fernandez said.

It would also mean that federal transportation grant programs, which have funneled more than $1.5 billion to Minnesota transit projects over the past two decades — including the Blue and Green light-rail lines — will have far more resources for projects in the pipeline.

Those include the Gold and Purple bus-rapid transit (BRT) lines in the east metro, the Bottineau Blue Line light-rail extension in the northern suburbs, and a BRT project in downtown Rochester. Other grants will support tribal and rural transportation systems.

Confirmed by the Senate in June, Fernandez has 35 years of experience working for transit agencies in California, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. She was in town this week to testify at a field hearing of the Senate Housing, Transportation and Community Development Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn. The topic: transit.

"We're building a transportation system," Smith said. "It's not like you have roads and bridges here, and public transit over there and they don't work together. Of course they have to work together. That is something we understand in Minnesota."

Many transit agencies are eyeing the federal money to upgrade buses to low- or zero-emission models as the climate continues to change (transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota and beyond). Federal infrastructure funds, for the most part, can't be used for operating expenses.

Though committed to building a more environmentally friendly fleet, Metro Transit has encountered issues with battery chargers for the Twin Cities' first eight electric buses, purchased for the C Line rapid bus route. As a result, the new electric buses have been sidelined for months.

Metro Transit officials haven't said publicly how they would use the federal money if it comes to them. But the funds could help transit agencies modernize their systems at a time when they're trying to lure passengers back as the pandemic continues to rage.

Overall ridership on Metro Transit trains and buses increased 43% in the second quarter this year, when compared with the same period last year. But the number of passengers still hasn't returned to pre-pandemic levels.

"Not everyone has a job that can be done from home," Fernandez said. "When the country slowed down, public transportation kept going and got the essential people to essential jobs."

Fernandez said commuter rail service, such as Northstar, will take longer to recover because it operates primarily during traditional rush hours — a standard that has changed in the pandemic.

"The majority of people on commuter rail are people going to office jobs, with the option to work from home or remotely," she said.

In that sense, transit agencies need to figure out when and where passengers need their services. Northstar took a big hit during the pandemic — during the second quarter this year, only 9,500 people took the train between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake.

In the future, commuter schedules may be more spread throughout the day rather than during typical business hours to accommodate more flexible work patterns, Fernandez said.

Both Smith and Fernandez are well aware of the enmity that public transit can attract. The amount of transit funding in the Senate infrastructure bill nearly killed the deal. Smith said she reminds naysayers that transit can serve rural communities and small towns, too, not just big cities.

"I think it's outrageous that we have such a hard time persuading Republicans either at the state or federal level that transit is important," Smith said. "We worked hard to get the dollars we got into the infrastructure package for transit. But it was a fight."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752