In the fast lane

City could benefit from major transit grant

The Twin Cities is in the running for a federal grant that would provide almost $200 million to get an improved transit system along Interstate 35W implemented within just three years.

One of the key elements of the proposed $220 million project would create what is essentially a bus rapid-transit (BRT) lane along I-35W from 46th Street into downtown Minneapolis.

Without the federal money, Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) said the Minnesota Department of Transportation wouldn’t likely start work on a BRT lane along the freeway north of 42nd Street until sometime between 2023 and 2030.

Another piece of the project would increase the bus lanes along Marquette and 2nd avenues Downtown from one to two lanes to improve the flow of buses and increase the use of mass transit.

To have a project of this magnitude largely funded by the federal government would be a big boost for Minneapolis residents as well as commuters, she said.

The goal of the project is to reduce, not mitigate, congestion along the I-35W corridor, Glidden said.

"They’re looking for really out-of-the-box thinking on how to do this," said Glidden, whose ward is split by I-35W.

The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) is looking for a

project that will utilize the "four T’s": tolling, transit, telecommuting and technology. It’s a $1 billion grant that will be split among up to five cities. Minnesota’s project is one of the nine finalists after surviving an initial pool of 28 applicants.

With this year’s legislative session yielding little more in the way of transportation funding than the ability to keep congestion-laden roads at status quo, the federal money is tantalizing. One catch, however, is that the grant funds 80 percent of the proposed project but requires 20 percent in matching funds from the state and local governments. That means that while the federal government would pick up $176 million of the tab, state and local government matches would have to total $44 million. That’s a significant amount of funding that doesn’t yet have a designated source.

Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B) said the Minnesota Legislature isn’t going to call a special session for this project, so the big funding question will be whether the federal government expects a 20 percent match upfront or can wait until funding options can be sorted out.

"I’m optimistic, but the questions are around timing," said Hornstein, who is a member of the I-35W Solutions Alliance, a group of elected representatives and officials from communities along the interstate that work on issues pertaining to the freeway.

Brian Kary, a freeway operations engineer with MnDOT who is working on the federal application, said as of June 14, no state funds had been identified for use in this project. However, he said he thinks the federal government realizes that there is still work to do in terms of garnering money and support, and the USDOT has not yet said whether it would require matching funds upfront. Kary said he also thinks the other finalists for the federal grant are in the same position financially. The other cities that are finalists for the grant are Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Miami, New York City, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.

"I think other cities are in the same boat," Kary said.

On a fast track

Another hurdle in obtaining the federal grant is the quick pace of the application process. The initial application was just submitted in April, finalists were announced the first week in June and the final selections will be announced in mid-July, a date that was moved up from the original target of late August. Organizers acknowledge that such a timeline puts a crunch on planning and input meetings.

"There’s no time to breathe on this at all," Kary said during a June 14 meeting of the I-35W Solutions Alliance, noting that the federal government is rushing to meet at Sept. 30 deadline to distribute the funds. "We’ll have our design staff working frantically to look at issues in the corridor."

The construction schedule would have an equally rushed start date.

"If we do get selected, they want something on the ground by 2009, so we’d probably be breaking ground in 2008," Kary said.

He said that, so far, it’s unclear how the project would interface with the Crosstown reconstruction project, which is scheduled for completion in 2010. That’s something local officials will need to discuss with the USDOT. If Minnesota is chosen for the grant, Kary said public officials will also need to start talking about authorizing legislation that will be needed to receive approval in next year’s legislative session.

The Twin Cities Congestion Coalition – the group formed to develop the proposed project that is now a finalist for the USDOT’s Urban Partnership Agreement (UPA) grant – put together a plan that encompasses tolling, transit, telecommuting and technology in ways it hopes will significantly reduce congestion along the I-35W corridor (see sidebar for list of projects). Because USDOT guidelines require the money fund a project that is up and running within three years, the local proposal focuses mainly on projects that have a one- to two-year implementation timeline.

The goal of the proposed plan would be to reduce congestion by 15-20 percent within three years. In the Twin Cities metro area, the annual hours of delay per person due to congestion grew from three in 1982 to more than 43 in 2003, according to the grant application. MnDOT leads the Congestion Coalition in partnership with the Metropolitan Council, and it includes regional and local agencies.

Glidden said Minnesota can’t afford to simply keep expanding its current transportation system. "We know we need solutions for 35W," she said.