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Bottineau LRT: Tiny step closer — but nowhere near a done deal

The nearer the destination, the more it’s slip sliding away.

The Metropolitan Council the other day approved the 13-mile Bottineau Transitway between Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park. The vote incorporates the project into the region’s transportation policy plan, which in turn makes it eligible for all-important federal funding which would pay about half the $1 billion cost.  

“Bottineau is key to the region’s future development and continued economic success,” said Susan Haigh, the Met Council chair. I agree. We really need this thing.

In case you’ve forgotten what the thing is or failed to commit the particulars to memory, here is a refresher. The proposed Bottineau light-rail line would connect downtown Minneapolis to the northwest suburbs. The chosen route, unimaginatively named the B-C-D1 Alignment, would start at the now-under-construction interchange near the baseball stadium, travel along Olson Highway and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad corridor and wind up on West Broadway in Brooklyn Park. As envisioned now, it will have 11 stations, four clumped in North Minneapolis and Golden Valley, and the rest spread out in Robbinsdale and Crystal.

So why is Bottineau important? Well, with LRT lines already going south to the Mall of America, east to St. Paul and southwest to Eden Prairie, logic would assume that another line should travel to the north. But according to the Met Council, there’s more to the case. Communities along dear old B-C-D1 will add some 140,000 people by 2030. Large employers and institutions sit along the line, including North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, the Target Northern Campus in Brooklyn Park, a development that will eventually include 12 buildings for 7,000 employees, North Hennepin Community College, with 7,500 students, and the North Arbor Lakes retail district, which the town of Maple Grove is trying to develop. And, of course, unless it’s taken over by bedbugs or hostile aliens from outer space, downtown Minneapolis should remain the major commuting destination.

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What’s more, the area along the Bottineau corridor currently offers little in the way of transit choice for those who don’t drive. And 14 percent of households there have no cars. LRT service would help them get to jobs and schools without requiring them to invest their dollars in a depreciating asset, namely a car.

Less congestion

The Met Council also asserts that Bottineau will reduce congestion. I’ve always felt that contention is a bit dubious. New York, where I lived for many years, is blanketed with subway, bus, train and ferry lines. But major highways still look like parking lots at almost every hour of the day.

As it turns out, research backs up my skepticism. A World Bank study found that public transit by itself would not induce people to drive less; the degree of congestion also depends on the physical shape of the city, where jobs and housing are located and how much coverage transit provides.

Jarrett Walker, a transit policy consultant (who worked on the Access Minneapolis plan back in 2006) and author of “Human Transit,” says that the Bottineau line (or any public transit addition, for that matter) “will probably improve congestion in the short term, but its major advantage is that it allows the economy to grow without increasing congestion.” Stores, businesses and housing will pop up around the stations and create jobs but won’t necessarily draw vehicles.  

Sounds good. I can barely wait. But transit, alas and alack, is not exactly an instant gratification item. Bottineau, if you can believe it, was first proposed in 1988. For 20 years it sat on a long list of possible transit investments for the area, only coming under serious consideration in 2008. Then it underwent an Alternatives Analysis, a federal process for the local evaluation of the costs, benefits and impacts of transit alternatives, the transitway type and the choice of alignment or what you and I would call route.

Bottineau Transitway recommended locally preferred alternative
Bottineau Transitway Draft Environmental Impact StatementBottineau Transitway recommended locally preferred alternative

And working out that route wasn’t exactly easy. Hennepin County ultimately rejected an alignment that would have had the train shooting through the North Side along Penn Avenue, cutting up the neighborhood and requiring the demolition of 150 houses. The more politically acceptable route, B-C-D1, has its own problems. For one, it travels alongside Wirth Park. More important, in my mind, its path, through relatively low-density neighborhoods, may make it less useful to residents.

The Met Council is projecting a daily ridership of 27,000, but that won’t happen unless Met Transit realigns bus routes to collect people and drop them at stations, says James Erkel, director of the Land Use and Transportation Program at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. (To help build ridership, he’s advocating the creation of a circulator bus system for passengers in North Minneapolis that would be called the Northside Hip Hop — but more about that another day.)

Last year, Bottineau had a near-death experience when the Golden Valley City Council rejected the route. (All the towns along the line have to approve it for the project to go ahead.) In December, however, a council member switched her vote. The argument that won her over, says Mayor Shep Harris, who is pro-LRT, was that a vote for the line did not make it a done deal. But it would release funds from the Met Council to conduct what he describes as “all the exhaustive studies and analysis” needed to answer officials’ and residents’ questions.

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Years of such planning and fussing lie ahead. Under the Met Council’s best scenario, we won’t be boarding the Bottineau LRT for another eight or nine years. According to public relations manager Bonnie Kollodge, preliminary engineering and final environmental review will take two to three years, final design one to two years and construction three to four years.   

Money, money, money

But a big question hangs over the line — funding. The Counties Transit Improvement Tax and the Hennepin County Railroad Authority will together supply 40 percent of the dough. But the state has to kick in 10 percent. The money could come from Gov. Mak Dayton’s proposed seven-county transit tax, but outstate legislators, says Erkel, are unlikely to pass that unless they get money for roads, which is desperately needed since the state gax tax is now insufficient to finance what needs to be done.

State Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) put forward a fix: a 7.5 cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax to pay for highways and a half-cent increase in the sales tax in the seven-county area to be served by mass transit. That proposal was left for dead the other day in the Taxes Committee, killed by members of Dibble’s own party who wanted to leave transportation where it is — which is nowhere.

Even if state lawmakers eventually get their act together, there are huge challenges in winning federal funding. Bottineau would be financed under the Federal Transportation Administration’s New Starts program, which requires cities to compete for grants. This year new transit legislation expanded eligibility of projects but kept funding flat; so more communities will be competing for the same amount of money.

“There are many scenarios under where Bottineau will get stalled,” says Mayor Harris. “My hope is that it won’t get stalled forever.”