Deal keeps bus rapid transit project on schedule

The Orange Line will meet a deadline to apply for federal funding

State Sen. Scott Dibble spoke Monday at a rally in support of Orange Line bus rapid transit.

The $150-million Orange Line bus rapid transit project is once again on track to meet a fast-approaching deadline to apply for federal funding.

The Counties Transit Improvement Board on Wednesday morning committed $37.5 million toward the 17-mile high-speed transit route along Interstate 35W. That commitment was reduced from $45 million in response to Dakota County’s sudden decision in June to withdraw from the five-member joint-powers board, a major player in metro-area transit.

There are now commitments to fund 83 percent of the local share of the project, enough to make “a very, very competitive application for the federal funds,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a CTIB board member. About $66 million in federal dollars were previously targeted to the project, but McLaughlin said the application would include a request to increase the federal share of construction costs to 49 percent from 44 percent, a difference of about $7.5 million.

“It’s a huge step forward today,” McLaughlin said.

Concerns that CTIB would not act in time for the project to meet a Sept. 2 federal deadline prompted a rally Monday on Lake Street near I-35W. Orange Line plans call for upgrades to several existing transit stops, including one at Lake Street where a bus shelter accessible only via a crumbling concrete staircase would be replaced by a transit hub connecting street-level bus routes to the Midtown Greenway below and the Orange Line above.

Project plans call for 12 stations between downtown Minneapolis and Burnsville on the northeastern edge of Dakota County. Operations are scheduled to begin in 2019.

Dakota County’s plan to withdraw from CTIB that same year has the board reevaluating its plans for funding future transit projects. The board collects revenue from a quarter-cent metro-area sales tax and a $20 motor vehicle sales tax to fund the construction and ongoing operation of transit projects, and is committed to paying for half of the Orange Line’s operations budget once the line opens.

McLaughlin said CTIB previously planned to make a $2 million grant to the Orange Line project office on Wednesday to keep the doors open and prevent staff layoffs. A Dakota County representative amended the grant agreement to include the original $45-million funding commitment, but that resolution was voted down.

Ultimately, the board approved a plan to reduce its commitment by $7.5 million, approximately equal to half of Dakota County’s annual contribution to CTIB, McLaughlin said.

‘The only thing missing right now is the $7.5 million that we carved out … and the $12.1 million in state bonding that’s necessary, that’s still missing from the project, in addition to the $25 million state bonding contribution to the road side of the project, to build the local entrance and exit ramps and access points,” McLaughlin said. “So, it’s $37 million in state bonding that’s necessary to make this project go.”

Kate Brickman, director of communications for Metropolitan Council, said at least 75 percent of the project’s local share had to be committed before the application could be submitted.

“It will probably give us a medium or a medium-high rating,” Brickman said. “We would’ve only gotten a high rating if we had all the state funding committed as well.”

At the rally on Monday, local elected officials and business and community leaders emphasized the Orange Line’s potential to connect workers with employers and to improve transit connections between Minneapolis and the south metro. A second phase of the project could extend the line to Lakeville, according to Metro Transit.

Jan Malcolm, vice president of public affairs for Allina Health and a former state health commissioner, said Allina, Wells Fargo and Children’s Hospital all shared “very strong support” for the Orange Line. Together, the three organizations employee 15,000 people who all work within a mile of the future Lake Street Station, Malcolm said.

“Transit is an absolute essential ingredient for business success,” she said.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-61A) described the current highway-level bus stop above Lake Street as “literally, an example of crumbling infrastructure.”

“If you’re in a wheelchair and you can’t make it up (the stairs) to 35W, you’re out of luck,” Hornstein added.