SW reps back a fast track for I-35W "Bus Rapid Transit"

Two Southwest political leaders say they want more restrictions on High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes planned for I-35W, not less.

Met Council member Frank Hornstein and State Rep. Scott Dibble, said allowing cars with two people in them is better than single occupancy, but barely.

"It slows down the bus and has a relatively low transit impact." Hornstein said.

He would like to see HOV lanes converted into a dedicated busway, with the possible addition of "truly high occupancy vehicles" -- cars with four or more people, vans and buses.

It's a different wrinkle in a debate over how best to recast what are currently underused HOV lanes.

Hornstein and Dibble are trying to build support for something called Bus Rapid Transit on the I-35W corridor -- the most heavily used transit corridor in the region, they said.

"The best way to describe it is like a train, like LRT or commuter rail, on rubber wheels -- with buses that look and feel and act just like trains," Dibble said. "They can be articulated. They pull into stations that look and feel like train stations. They have low platforms so the boarding is easy and quick. They have expedited fare collection."

Dibble and Hornstein are talking about holding workshops and forums on Bus Rapid Transit to build public support.

Ask the state Department of Transportation about Bus Rapid Transit and it defers comment.

"We have this relationship with Metro Transit -- we provide the facility, they come up with the buses," said Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) spokesperson Kevin Gutknecht.

Tom O'Keefe, Mn/DOT's area manager of Central and Southern Hennepin County, said his department is not sure it can use highway funding -- whether state or federal -- to build a dedicated busway.

It might require separate transit funding, which Mn/DOT would have to get from the legislature by special appropriation.

And transit is a tough sell at the legislature; Dibble said many of his House colleagues are "overtly hostile" to it.

As one example, he said the legislature last year killed the Dan Patch line -- an old rail line and potential commuter route that runs south of the metro area. "There is another bill in front of us now that drives the stake in and twists it in the Dan Patch corridor," he said. "It is dead and becoming more dead."

Bus Rapid Transit is not in Metro Transit's transit plans for I-35W, said Bob Gibbons, a spokesperson for Metro Transit. "It is almost too new," he said. Metro Transit is eying two other corridors first for Bus Rapid Transit.

The Met Council projects that the greater Twin Cities population will grow by 930,000 over the next three decades, increasing traffic congestion. It is in the process of writing Blueprint 2030 to guide regional growth on transit and other issues.

That process could chart a course for such things as Bus Rapid Transit for I-35W and other arteries. Hornstein chairs the Blueprint 2030 committee.

The Federal Transit Administration has promoted Bus Rapid Transit and has a webpage with links to various projects (www.fta.dot.gov/brt/). The General Accounting Office in September release a study titled "Bus Rapid Transit shows promise," which said capital costs for such projects were less than half of light-rail lines.

Projects in the works Bus Rapid Transit refers to a series of improvements to make buses run faster --and become more attractive to users -- Gibbons said.

Depending on the roadway, features may include:

  • Off-bus fare collection -- paying the fare at the station would shorten loading time.

  • Platform loading -- so people walk straight onto the bus, like a train.

  • Dedicated bus lanes.

  • Signal prioritization -- where the bus would send a signal to the traffic light that would slightly extend the green or shorten the red so the bus could continue to move.

  • Queue jumping -- where buses are merged with regular traffic, it gives them the jumpstart on the green light.

    For the proposed HOV lane on I-35W, the features could include the off-bus fare collection and platform loading.

    Metro Transit plans to use Bus Rapid Transit for the Riverview Corridor -- which runs from Maplewood Mall to downtown St. Paul, out West 7th to the airport and Mall of America -- and the Northwest Corridor -- which follows County Road 81 from Rogers to downtown Minneapolis.

    The fate of both is uncertain. The state had approved $46 million for the Riverview Corridor Bus Rapid Transit, Gibbons said. But the budget-balancing bill passed by the House and Senate strikes $40 million from that project.

    The $92-million Northwest Corridor Bus Rapid Transit project is in this year's capital bonding bill. The Governor included $50 million for the project, the Senate $5 million and the House nothing, Gibbons said.

    Riding the shoulder I-35W does not have HOV lanes north of 66th Street. The northbound HOV ends at 82nd Street.

    Mn/DOT is working on new access ramps on and off of I-35W in south Minneapolis, and it is encouraging a design that accommodates a future HOV lane, a move supported by Metro Transit.

    Gibbons said buses now use shoulder lanes on I-35W in south Minneapolis to limited benefit. The shoulder lanes run northbound from 56th Street to 44th Street and southbound from Franklin Avenue to 60th Street. Buses can drive a maximum of 35 mph -- but not any more than 15 mph faster than adjacent traffic.

    Metro Transit has not done a cost-benefit analysis for adding Bus Rapid Transit onto I-35W, he said. It would have to price out infrastructure like the ticket vending machines, "which aren't cheap."

    Adding the HOV lane alone could cut five minutes off a commute for bus riders, he said.

    "Any of the other rapid transit features would help that -- it might cut extra seconds off -- but the enormous savings comes from the existence of the HOV lanes."

    Hornstein said the Bus Rapid Transit option needs to be studied, including the benefits of allowing buses -- which have the highest usage in the transit hierarchy -- exclusive use of the HOV lane.

    "By setting up this exclusive lane, and the infrastructure around it, it will make it far more difficult for there to be future attempts to convert this lane into all-purpose traffic."