The Orange Line will live to see another day.
The beleaguered bus-rapid transit project planned for busy Interstate 35W secured $37.5 million from the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) after a chaotic public meeting Wednesday. Another chunk of cash, $7.5 million, will come from the Metropolitan Council and Hennepin and Dakota counties.
The board’s financial commitment means the $150.7 million project can inch forward without laying off staff, but it doesn’t guarantee its survival. The fate of about $12 million in state funding for the 17-mile line between Minneapolis and Burnsville is still unclear.
Yet transit advocates, about 75 of whom gathered at the board meeting in St. Paul wearing orange and brandishing signs, were jubilant. They were a polite but determined bunch: Some were political or union leaders, others hailed from nonprofit organizations, such as Transit for Livable Communities and the Sierra Club. Many wore stickers that said #saveorangeline, and several spoke during the meeting — highly unusual for CTIB, where public testimony is rare.
“You guys are awesome,” declared Peter Wagenius, policy director for Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, after the meeting. “We made progress, but we are not all the way there.”
The board’s action Wednesday means that the Metropolitan Council can submit an application to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) by Sept. 2 so it can be included in the 2017 federal budget. The FTA is expected to pay half of the Orange Line’s capital costs.
The state’s share, meanwhile, is being held up in the bonding program, currently stalled due to political bickering.
Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders are scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss a possible special session. Such a session could result in bonding dollars being released to various projects across the state, including the Orange Line, as well as $25 million for a new I-35W transit station at Lake Street, part of a Minnesota Department of Transportation project.
All along, CTIB was expected to contribute $45 million to build the Orange Line. The little-known but powerful board raises money by collecting a quarter-cent transit tax levied by Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Dakota and Washington counties, as well as a $20 motor vehicle sales tax. It funded the nearly $1 billion Green Line LRT and is on the hook to pay a third of the cost of the Southwest and Bottineau light-rail lines, as well.
But last month, the Dakota County Board voted to leave the group in 2019, claiming it puts more money into CTIB than it gets in return. This has caused harsh feelings among some CTIB members.
Dakota County Commissioner Thomas Egan said he takes “extreme umbrage” at the suggestion that his county’s departure from the board will lead to the collapse of the Orange Line. The county will continue to pay some capital costs to build and operate it, even after leaving the group, he said.
Transit user Jeremy Dennison of Apple Valley chastised Dakota County officials during the meeting and urged them to return to CTIB. “It takes a whole region to build an efficient transit system,” he said.
Bus-rapid transit service is much like light rail — passengers pay before boarding, and buses arrive every 10 minutes during peak times. Unlike various LRT lines in the works locally, the Orange Line has enjoyed bipartisan support. Egan said he would like to see the line eventually extended to Lakeville.
But Dakota County’s impending departure “punches a hole in the finances of CTIB,” said Chairman Peter McLaughlin, also a Hennepin County commissioner. In a last-minute move to keep the line afloat, CTIB member Jim McDonough, a Ramsey County commissioner, moved to commit $37.5 million for the project. This leaves $7.5 million from CTIB’s original share to be funded by the Met Council, Hennepin and Dakota counties — a move that infuriated Dakota County officials.
“It’s convenient to blame Dakota County, but it’s really not fair,” said Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg. The motion passed despite nay votes from Dakota and Anoka County officials.
“This is retribution for Dakota County stepping out early,” said Anoka Commissioner Scott Schulte. “The ring counties don’t feel that we are getting our share of projects.”