Bipartisan bridge-building boosts I-35W transit

Southwest liberal, Lakeville conservative become Bus Rapid Transit buddies

In a contentious election year, it seems impossible for Democrats and Republicans to team up and work together on an issue.

But it's happening in Southwest.

Linden Hills State Rep. Frank Hornstein, a liberal DFLer and Lakeville State Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, a conservative Republican, have joined forces to build bus rapid transit (BRT) on I-35W.

BRT uses dedicated express lanes to more quickly move riders between a series of light-rail-like stations; LRT is considered too expensive for I-35W, the state's most-traveled corridor, so BRT is the best hope for speedier mass transit there.

The state's plan to expand Crosstown Commons includes a BRT station at 46th Street and a high-occupancy vehicle/BRT lane between 46th and 84th streets.

However, Minneapolis officials refused to OK the project in September because the state hasn't guaranteed BRT funding. The city fears the lane would be given over to regular traffic.

Also, the city wants BRT to extend into downtown Minneapolis, meaning a new lane north of 46th Street. The I-35W Access Project, which would redo ramps between 26th & 38th streets, leaves room for such a lane -- but it, too, needs guaranteed state funding.

To move BRT forward, Holberg and Hornstein masterminded a state study of costs and environmental impacts. The results, scheduled to be released Dec. 10, will effectively make the case, they hope.

Paradoxical pair

Hornstein and Holberg seem as different as can be, at least transportationally. Hornstein arrives at a meeting in a Honda Civic hybrid, while Holberg pulls up in a large Chevy Tahoe.

Another difference: Holberg left Minneapolis for Lakeville as a 10-year-old, when her parents fled because of problems caused by forced school integration and rising crime rates, she said; Hornstein is a willing immigrant, moving to the city from his native Cincinnati.

Still, the two Minnesota legislators have found common ground on the bus.

Hornstein recalls meeting Holberg in 2002, when he was a Metropolitan Council member and she was a second-term legislator. Hornstein said the two had good rapport despite party differences and made time to hear about issues important to each other.

Holberg, recalling Hornstein's interest in a sewer connection problem her constituents had in Elko and New Market, said "I found it interesting he would take the time to listen to my issues."

Hornstein said his interest in I-35W's future grew after arriving at the Legislature in 2003 because he saw that the Metropolitan Council lacked a vision for the corridor. He said he wanted to explore BRT as a cost-efficient, environmentally safer way to move commuters.

As part of his preliminary research, Hornstein went to Lakeville to explore the idea of a study with that city's officials. He said he'd heard their population was projected to double in the next 20 years and knew they'd want congestion relief. To his surprise, Lakeville's staff had transit data from when a similar study was proposed in the 1990s.

Holberg, a former member of the Lakeville City Council and Planning Commission, said she became convinced I-35W BRT is more cost-effective than adding road capacity, fitting her fiscally conservative principles.

Still, pushing BRT among her Lakeville constituents is tough, she said. Holberg notes that the Lakeville study found only 5 percent of its commuters work north of I-494.

Despite that figure, she said if the state gives suburban commuters the chance to try transit that works on I-35W, they would use it and open the door for BRT on a suburb-to-suburb highway like I-494.

To push the novel mass-transit system forward, Hornstein and Holberg said they had to wrangle legislative support for a study. Both said they took heat from colleagues for teaming up with the other party, referencing backhanded comments made by their cohorts. "We take some political risk by doing this," Holberg said.

She recalled one such comment, saying, "One legislator accused me of going to the 'dark side.'"

Said Hornstein, "There's nothing like a road/transit project to get people into their corners and reinforce stereotypes," but it's the jabs that show how important it is to work across party lines to improve the legislative climate.

All things considered, they said their partnership proved to be key in gaining support. In 2003, Hornstein and Holberg, with the help of Southwest Minneapolis DFL Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Kingfield), got the BRT study bill passed.

Fitting BRT into I-35W

Holberg and Hornstein both say they're encouraged that the state's study will make BRT an I-35W reality. "This BRT study allows people along the corridor a chance to share their vision," Hornstein said.

Hornstein said BRT has also been added to the state's long-range 2030 plan, a major step.

Tom O'Keefe, a project manager with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said BRT's biggest challenge is its cost, which the study will delineate. He said the study's recommendations should be helpful, but, ultimately, funding is up to the Legislature.

Hornstein, Dibble and Holberg said they're be meeting to figure out how to get I-35W BRT funding in the next bonding bill, which could happen as soon as this year.

For more information about the state's BRT study, visit projects.dot.state.mn.us/urs/035w/.