Orange Line bus rapid transit nearing critical deadline

A rally Monday urged support for bus rapid transit project

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

WHITTIER — Minneapolis elected officials joined with community and business representatives to rally Monday in support of the Orange Line bus rapid transit project, which appears in danger of missing a Sept. 2 deadline for federal funding.

The planned 17-mile bus rapid transit project would connect downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville on the northeastern edge of Dakota County in 2019 following a high-speed route down Interstate 35W. But Dakota County’s recent vote to withdraw from the Counties Transit Improvement Board has put into question whether the five-member joint-powers board will come through with its $45-million contribution to the project.

“As a consequence of some sort of a squabble internal to that entity (CTIB), they’re looking at yanking that funding and making a decision in just a couple of days,” state Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-61) said. “This cannot stand.”

CTIB’s vote on the Orange Line is scheduled for Wednesday morning. Orange Line supporters contend a delay would put at risk $66 million in federal funds that are critical to the project.

Established in 2008 to fund Twin Cities transit projects, CTIB is committed to paying half the ongoing operating subsidy for Orange Line once it’s running. A vote to fund construction of the bus rapid transit project now means CTIB will still be on the hook for operating expenses after Dakota County exits the board in 2019, taking with it its share of CTIB revenue generated by a quarter-cent metro area sales tax and a $20 motor vehicle sales tax.

Dibble, who described the transit project as a critical link between workers and employers along the I-35W corridor, gathered with other Orange Line supporters Monday near the I-35W overpass above Lake Street. The area is expected to be remade when work begins late next year on the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s $150-million I-35W Transit/Access Project.

Although the two projects are separate, the I-35W Transit/Access Project would create a new Lake Street transit center connecting street-level bus routes to the Midtown Greenway below and the Orange Line on the highway above. That new transit center is meant to replace a highway-side bus shelter currently accessible only via a visibly deteriorating concrete staircase that Morgan Zehner, a member of the Lake Street Council board of directors, called “completely inadequate.”

A man walked up the staircase leading from Lake Street to an express bus stop on I-35W.
A man walked up the staircase leading from Lake Street to an express bus stop on I-35W.

“Not only does it straight-up disrespect people with its disrepair, it doesn’t even work,” Zehner said, explaining that express buses have trouble moving through traffic from the high-occupancy toll lanes on the left side of the highway to the bus stop on the right. The Lake Street Station would allow riders to board in between the north- and southbound lanes of I-35W, as they do at 46th Street.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-61A) described the staircase leading to the highway-level bus stop as “literally, 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 said.

He said the bipartisan support for the Orange Line at the legislature was “unique” for a major metro-area transit project, adding that on CTIB’s vote “hangs the balance of how we move forward together as a region” on transit.

A bus will carry Orange Line supporters from the Lake Street Kmart to the CTIB meeting in St. Paul. The bus will depart Kmart about an hour before the meeting begins 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.