City polls fear new I-35W transit lane will become a driving lane

The state highway department's top brass is backing plans to extend high-occupancy vehicle lanes on I-35W north of 42nd Street, but city officials say uncertain transit funding makes the plan a Trojan horse for adding another regular driving lane.

A high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane could boost transit between downtown Minneapolis and Lakeville, especially if it includes so-called bus rapid transit (BRT). Yet transit finances have been hurt by Metro Transit’s route cuts, fare hikes and this year’s bus strike. Rep. Frank Hornstein, Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman and City Councilmember Robert Lilligren (8th Ward) say they worry about future efforts to convert the HOV lane to general traffic.

Doug Differt, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), announced the state would begin planning for HOV/BRT lanes at the March 19 meeting of an I-35W/Highway 62 Crosstown policy advisory


A new lane would unclog a potential Crosstown/I-35W bottleneck. Current reconstruction plans call for a northbound I-35W HOV lane that would end at 42nd Street, pinching the highway from five lanes to four.

"It is important that this [I-35W] corridor be taken care of from one end to the other," Differt said.

The state's 10-year plan does not include money for the HOV/BRT link into downtown, but Differt said, "If you don't have a plan, it won't happen."

Hornstein called the announcement "unilateral" and "premature," and said the state should commit money to run the bus system before building a HOV/BRT lane.

"The ultimate proof of Mn/DOT's intension -- and even the Met Council -- is to what extent is transit going to be fully funded," he said. "We don't want this to be a road expansion project with a token commitment to transit."

Tom O'Keefe, the MnDOT's west area manager, said a BRT report would go to the Legislature at year's end, outlining costs and recommendations.

"Some of those decisions on the long-term funding are the purview of the legislature," he said.

What is BRT?

Bus rapid transit is a generic term for making buses run more efficiently. The concept can include several strategies: a dedicated bus lane, limited-stop routes, and new technology and bus designs to speed boarding and unloading.

Hornstein and fellow Southwest DFLer Sen. Scott Dibble authored legislation last year to require the state Transportation Department to study BRT in the I-35W corridor south of Minneapolis. Hornstein said it was the only transit legislation to pass in 2003.

Mark Ryan, vice president of consulting firm URS Corp., gave a BRT study update at the I-35W/Crosstown project meeting.

URS looked at three options for the I-35W/Crosstown Commons project and recommended adding a 14-foot-wide, barrier-free HOV/BRT lane in each direction, Ryan said.

The firm also considered and rejected a barrier-separated HOV/BRT lane, Ryan said. It would add $25 million in construction costs and require an added 22 feet of right of way (11 feet in each direction.) It also rejected a third option -- a separate HOV lane with BRT running on the shoulder -- because it would limit bus travel speeds to 35 mph.

Maximum capacity

Lilligren, whose ward includes Kingfield and Lyndale that border on I-35W, said he would prefer a separated bus-only lane.

"A dedicated BRT/HOV lane with no barrier is very easily converted into a general purpose lane," he said.

Ryan said buses need to share the lanes with multipassenger cars to maximize I-35W's capacity. As many as 88 buses an hour would use the lane, but it can carry 1,700 vehicles per hour at posted speeds.

Limiting the new lane to buses would displace 5,000 to 7,000 cars from the HOV lane. Those riders may choose transit -- or they may drive on city streets.

O'Keefe said Mn/DOT has opposed converting HOV lanes to general purpose lanes and said I-35W's high transit use -- currently 15,000 passengers a day -- makes it an unlikely candidate.

"The reason that people pursue those changes is because of the underuse [of HOV lanes]," he said. The I-35W lane "has much higher potential for full and productive use than do any other HOV lanes. … If any piece of HOV lane is going to be successful, it is going to be this piece."

Access impact

Dorfman said extending HOV/BRT lanes to downtown could cost Hennepin County control of the I-35W Access Project.

The Access Project would add freeway ramps at Lake Street and 28th Street and move the 35th and 36th street ramps to 38th Street. A Project Advisory Committee (PAC) including residents and business people has worked for years on plans to mitigate the project's impact on surrounding neighborhoods, suggesting traffic calming measures and greening among other ideas.

O'Keefe said if the extended HOV/BRT lanes move forward, the state, not the county, would become the lead agency for most if not all of the I-35W Access Project. It depends on the staging, he said.

Dorfman worries that a state takeover would weaken citizen influence. O'Keefe said he did not anticipate reopening discussions on the neighborhood plans.

"Our position on the enhancements that are part of the Lake Street Project hasn't changed," he said. "We would work with them in an attempt to maintain that continuity. We don't want that [neighborhood] work to be lost."

O'Keefe said proponents of the I-35W Access Project encouraged the state to move ahead with the HOV/BRT lanes to downtown.

"The only way it makes sense to move the Lake Street project forward is to move it together with the fifth lane [to downtown]," he said. "It makes no sense as a matter of public policy to tear up that corridor one time for the access project and another time for the HOV/BRT lane."