The Chicago-Lake Transit Center, where the state’s two busiest local bus lines meet in south Minneapolis, is a boarded-up shell — fallout from the recent destruction following the death of George Floyd.
Yet the dingy center is still a working bus stop for Metro Transit’s Routes 5 and 21, which serve millions of passengers a year. The two routes are slated to be upgraded to arterial bus-rapid transit service that runs 20% faster by stopping less frequently and allowing passengers to pay before boarding.
But critical state funding for the planned improvements languished in a legislative session co-opted by the COVID-19 pandemic and fallout from Floyd’s death. The state faces a $2.4 billion deficit tied to the coronavirus’ economic aftermath. And, it’s unclear how public transportation will recover once the threat of the virus eases.
Frustrated with the lack of movement on transit funding at the Capitol, but encouraged by the possibility of a special session to distribute bonding money, some DFL lawmakers have characterized support of the lines as a racial equity issue.
“It’s absolutely critical for rebuilding,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis.
Both routes serve areas hard-hit in the unrest after Floyd’s death, including Lake Street, where hundreds of businesses were destroyed.
“Transit should be part of any discussion of economic recovery in these neighborhoods,” said Ben Fried, spokesman for TransitCenter, a New York advocacy organization. “Access to jobs is one of the most important predictors of economic mobility.”
The proposed $75 million D Line, which would substantially replace Route 5 service, needs $20 million to get it running by 2022, according to Metro Transit. The project has failed to win support at the Legislature for at least three years.
The proposed B Line would be a faster version of the Route 21 that travels from Uptown along Lake Street in Minneapolis and Marshall Avenue in St. Paul to Union Depot. The cost to build the line is estimated to be between $55 million and $65 million.
The local No. 21 bus is the slowest in Metro Transit’s system — a non-rush hour trip from one end to another can take about 80 minutes. Upgrading service would cost $35 million from state coffers. Most of the rest is expected to come from federal sources.
Transit supporters say they were heartened to see the Republican-controlled Senate set aside $12 million in its bonding proposal for bus rapid transit. Republican Senate Caucus spokeswoman Rachel Aplikowski said “work is ongoing to find agreement on an amount for bus rapid transit in the bonding bill.”
Metro Transit says about 57% of the residents who live within a half-mile of the D Line, which travels from Brooklyn Center through north and south Minneapolis to the Mall of America, are people of color, and only 1 in 4 households has a car.
“The D Line would open up so many doors for people, especially in north Minneapolis,” said Christi Sullivan, a Heritage Park resident who commutes on the Route 5 bus to her job as a clinical research coordinator at the University of Minnesota. “North Minneapolis has been promised a lot of things that didn’t come to pass.”
Similarly, about 42% of the residents living within a half-mile of the B Line stretching across both cities are people of color, with 1 in 5 having access to a car, according to Metro Transit.
“If they could upgrade it, that would be good,” said David Tyler of St. Paul, who takes the Route 21, light rail and another bus to get to his job sanitizing bathrooms at a grocery store in Edina.
“In both of these cases, transit is very essential for people who live on the corridors,” said Charles Carlson, Metro Transit’s director of bus rapid transit projects. “You can get to hundreds of thousands of jobs in a quicker and more reliable way.”
In a statement, Ecolab spokesman Roman Blahoski said the company and other employers in downtown St. Paul “need high-quality transit options to attract and retain workers. The B Line will help people get to work and back home more quickly, which is important to our employees, and will make downtown St. Paul a more attractive place to work.”
DFL lawmakers would also like an additional $20 million for the proposed E Line between the University of Minnesota and Southdale Center. The idea is to build upon the success of the existing A and C Lines, Carlson said.
Both, he noted, “continue to be very popular.”