35W access planning: Putting transit first

Talks picked up in February where they left off in 2005

After a half-decade hiatus, planning for a project that could transform connections between I-35W and neighborhoods just south of Downtown restarted in February — with a new emphasis on transit.

The centerpiece of the I-35W Transit/Access Project could be a new highway-level transit station above Lake Street linking future Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on I-35W to street-level bus routes, as well as bicyclists, pedestrians and — someday, possibly — rail or streetcar service in the Midtown Greenway.

The full scope of the project is much larger.

The Project Advisory Committee (PAC) that met for the first time Feb. 24 — and was expected to continue meeting for several years — will consider new highway exit and entrance ramps at Lake Street, creating a full interchange for the first time. Also on the table were an exit to 28th Street, highway bridge reconstructions and replacements and other project components between 32nd Street and Downtown.

All are pieces in what Hennepin County Engineer Jim Grube described as massive puzzle. Individual pieces will be placed as funding becomes available, and not all may fit in the final picture, Grube said.

The PAC’s job will be to bring plans for each component up to about 30 percent, the threshold for federal funding eligibility.

Estimated to cost $224 million in 2009 dollars, it’s still a much smaller project than the one a previous PAC debated from the late ’90s until about 2005. Then known as the I-35W Access Project (under its former, “transit”-less moniker), it included project components extending south to 38th Street and a $400–450 million price tag.

The cost, controversy over the potential razing of homes and businesses for highway ramps and a debate over the role of motor-vehicle traffic in the city’s transit future did it in. Priorities shifted, too, with state and local governments refocusing their funds and attention to the Crosstown Commons and the Lake Street reconstruction projects.

Said Grube: “We’re trying to reduce some of the controversy and reduce a lot of the cost and figure out how to position the region for a strong, competitive position if and when funding becomes available.”

Transit first

The previous phase of the project dragged City Council Member Robert Lilligren (Ward 6) into local politics. An unelected neighborhood activist in the 1990s, he was appointed to the PAC as a Phillips neighborhood representative.

At that time, Lilligren questioned the project’s favoring, in his view, of highway expansion over mass transit. He also raised concerns about increased traffic and reduced air quality for residents nearest the new ramps then proposed.

“We were looking at heavily investing in what clearly was an outdated model,” he said.

Times have changed. Both Grube and Lilligren pointed out state and local governments had warmed to transit since 2005.

“Transit is now the major focus in how we move people, not necessarily cars,” Grube said.

Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, a light rail-like highway transit service linking Downtown and the southern suburbs, is set to start operations on I-35W in 2012. Highway-level, center-lane transit stations, like one recently opened at 46th Street, are intended to move passengers quickly on and off buses traveling on the new high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes.

City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (Ward 8) said Lake Street’s current highway-level bus stop was a significant gap in the BRT system. Glidden called the simple bus shelter at the top of a steep staircase “ridiculous.”

Glidden, Lilligren and City Council Member Meg Tuthill (Ward 10) all serve on the PAC, and as elected officials they may also have a say in the sequencing of the project. With strong support, a new Lake Street transit station — estimated by Grube to cost $25-30 million on its own — could go first.

Said Lilligren: “You need something that will not just serve 35W, but here’s the opportunity to create a station … that seamlessly serves 35W, Lake Street and future rail on the Greenway — and now’s the time to do that.”

Both he and Glidden identified transit as their top priority for the project. Speaking for Tuthill, policy aide Leslie Foreman she wants “to get the best design that we can to smooth connections between all the different modes of transportation.”

Ramping up

The “access” piece of the project remains, as it was during the last round of talks, more controversial.

Then, as now, building additional exit and entrance ramps would require the razing or relocation of homes and businesses bordering I-35W. It also could improve access to the Lake Street commercial corridor, institutions like the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Minneapolis College of Art and Design and major employers, including Allina Hospitals and Clinics and Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, which both have campuses east of the highway.

Peggy Gunn of the Wells Fargo regional banking communications office said her company supports the entire project, including a new exit ramp from I-35W to eastbound 28th Street that would lead directly to the Wells Fargo Home Mortgage offices just east of the highway.

“We support design efforts that will provide easy access to our mortgage campus for current team members who work there, as well as to attract employees in the future as part of our effort to continue to grow jobs in our businesses,” Gunn wrote in an e-mail.

Gloria O’Connell, public relations manager for Allina and Abbott Northwestern Hospital, said: “We want to improve access to our campus from 35W, and we’ve wanted that for a long time.”

Policymakers Glidden and Lilligren would not stake out a clear position on all of the proposed ramps, except in one case. Lilligren said the 28th Street ramp was not “necessary,” but also acknowledged a potential conflict-of-interest; his home is very close to the project area.

Said Glidden: “I think we have to be really careful about whether ramp access is necessary and it doesn’t repeat existing access points.”

Hennepin County awarded engineering firm Short Elliot Hendrickson a $5 million contract for preliminary design work on the project. About $3.6 million of the contract was paid with federal funds, and the rest divided between the city, county and state.

The puzzle pieces

Hennepin County Engineer Jim Grube identified the following as the most significant potential components of the $224 million I-35W Transit/Access Project:

A new transit station on I-35W at Lake Street connecting highway-, street- and Greenway-level transit options

Reconstruction of I-35W from about 32nd Street north to Downtown, including bridges

A highway exit ramp from southbound I-35W to Lake Street

A northbound highway entrance from Lake Street

A highway exit from northbound I-35W to 28th Street

Reconfiguration of highway access to northbound I-35W and eastbound I-94 from Fifth Avenue

Replacement of the “braid bridge” to southbound I-35W from Downtown and the northbound I-35W flyover bridge to westbound I-94 (mandated by state law to occur by 2018, and not included in the estimated cost of the project).

Individual project components likely will be built as funding becomes available, and some may not be built at all.

Hennepin County planned to post more information on the topic at  www.35lake.com, although the website was not active when this edition of the Southwest Journal went to press.