City questions state on I-35W expansion

Mayor R.T. Rybak and the Minneapolis City Council have sent state highway officials a detailed list of transit issues they want resolved before approving new I-35W lanes.

It is the run-up to what should be an extremely contentious debate -- one that will happen on two different levels.

The state wants city approval for one well-defined project: expanding and smoothing traffic on the treacherous Crosstown Commons interchange, including I-35W between 42nd and

66th streets.

City leaders don't want to look at the Crosstown plan in isolation. They want to force a broader discussion about the state's plans to add I-35W lanes from downtown to Burnsville.

State law requires the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) to seek "municipal consent" on projects; MnDOT submitted the final Crosstown project to the city April 16.

The law also creates an appeals process if the city says no. (A three-member appeals board would consist of one Mn/DOT representative, one from the city and a third agreed to by both. If the parties disagree on the third member, the chief justice of the Supreme Court makes the appointment.)

The looming debate is not whether transit is a part of the Crosstown and future I-35W project -- a lane that would serve buses and high-occupancy vehicles is clearly part of the plan.

The flashpoint is the state's long-term transit commitment -- and whether it will convert the transit lane to general traffic, as local officials fear.

The city set a public hearing to discuss the project: June 14, 7 p.m., Washburn High School auditorium, 209 W. 49th St.

The Council has to vote on the project within 90 days of the hearing, or by Sept. 3 at the latest.

The plan

The plan would widen the Crosstown and create a new I-35W high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane between 42nd and 66th streets; Mn/DOT has already announced plans it wants to extend the HOV lane downtown.

Those plans triggered the city's April 15 letter to Mn/DOT.

The city wants Mn/DOT in its Crosstown proposal to:

– Dedicate any new lane to mass transit -- with an operating agreement to enforce the use.

– Design and fund I-35W bus rapid-transit stations that Minneapolitans

could use.

– Include the location, size, design and budget for suburban park-and-ride facilities to support the increased commuter traffic.

– Describe how the I-35W expansion project will coordinate with regional transportation and transit plans, including light rail, bus rapid transit, commuter rail and future highway design and expansion.

– Explain how the proposed design, budgeting and operating agreements will meet transit goals for the project

– Explain why additional right-of-way was taken for the Crosstown project.

– Include updated environmental impact information.

The letter asks how needed improvements will be funded and when the money will be spent.

The city approved a policy earlier this year to require any new lane be dedicated to vehicles with three or more people (so-called HOV-3 lanes). The policy also requires a written guarantee the state won't change the lane's use without city approval.

Tom O'Keefe, Mn/DOT's west metro area manager, said the city "took a big step" in passing the resolution. But he said Mn/DOT could not guarantee long-term HOV dedication.

"We share the same values with them that transit buses should be the first priority," O'Keefe said. "We also have a value that we don't want to operate an empty lane. If that lane is empty, and the other lanes are congested we don't think that is in anyone's best interest."

The city will have to vote on the Crosstown Commons project without any future transit funding certainty, which the Legislature does as part of its biannual budget. The city will also have to vote without complete results from Mn/DOT's Bus Rapid Transit study, to be issued in December.

At the Council's Transportation and Public Works committee meeting May 4, O'Keefe and Adam Harrington, Metro Transit's route and system planning manager, said that the Crosstown project will partially pay for some BRT features, such as a 46th Street transit station.

Harrington said Metro Transit's planned bus rerouting will also increase

I-35W bus routes, a BRT-type focus.

O'Keefe recommended the BRT lane not be separated by barriers from other traffic. That could make it easier to convert to a general driving lane.

Mn/DOT officials also told the committee that the Environmental Assessment would be turned over to the city on Monday, May 10. A public meeting on the environmental findings is set for July.

Many Councilmembers expressed frustration with unanswered questions. Committee Chair Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward) said a recent letter from Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who is also Mn/DOT commissioner, sounded confident the state and city could agree about project details.

O'Keefe said transit funding does not come together all at once but usually in small chunks.

When asked how the state could assure city leaders of the state's transit commitment, O'Keefe said to some extent it is out of Mn/DOT's control. "The funding piece relies on legislative action," he said.