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New metro BRT lines could be DOA without a little TLC from the Legislature

Several BRT projects are currently on regional leaders’ funding wishlist, but much of what happens with those priorities will depend on what happens at the Legislature.

C Line
The C Line is set to begin service between the Brooklyn Center Transit Center and downtown Minneapolis in June.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Move over light rail. A different public transit mode is in the spotlight at the state Capitol: bus rapid transit.

In coming days, state lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz could decide the future of several proposed bus rapid transit lines in the Twin Cities metro. Better known as BRT, the service attempts to provide a light-rail-like rider experience with enhanced stations, expedited ticket purchasing and boarding, increased frequency and limited stops to provide faster trips.

Several BRT projects are currently on regional leaders’ funding wishlist, but much of what happens with those priorities will depend on what happens at the Legislature. The DFL-controlled House and the GOP-controlled Senate have proposed two vastly different spending plans for transportation in the next two years. The Senate’s transportation funding proposal sets aside no new money for public transit, for instance, while the House and Walz have proposed a plan that would help fund 10 new bus rapid transit lines over the next decade.

Members of the Senate and House are currently meeting in conference committees to work out compromises before the end of the legislative session on May 20.

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Most immediately, regional leaders want new funding streams for three new arterial BRT routes: the D line, which would run along the transit agency’s busiest bus corridor, Route 5, between Brooklyn Center and Bloomington; the E line, which would run along Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis; and the B line, which would go along the transit agency’s second busiest line, Route 21, which runs from Minneapolis to St. Paul along Lake Street and Marshall Avenue.

“We don’t have remaining funding to move into construction,” on the D, E and B lines, “and all other BRT lines we’ve discussed with local leaders and are part of the governor’s vision,” said Kate Brickman, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Council, which oversees transportation projects. “We will not be able to build out that system without new funding.”

Vastly different plans

The new BRT lines would join two existing BRT lines in the Twin Cities metro: the three-year-old A Line, which runs between south Minneapolis and the Rosedale Center and the yet-to-open C Line, which is set to begin service between the Brooklyn Center Transit Center and downtown Minneapolis in June.

Supporters say the lines are the first phase in plans for an improved bus network that could ease parking and traffic congestion. But some critics point to declining ridership numbers — figures have show slight decreases in passengers for most transit each year since 2015 — for existing bus service, saying the risk is too high to spend tens of millions of dollars on routes that may end up serving fewer passengers than the current lines.

State Sen. Scott Newman
State Sen. Scott Newman
At the Capitol, the conversation is less about transportation trends and more about where the money to pay for projects should come from. Democrats want to create a new stream of revenue with a half-cent sales tax across the seven-county metro area (Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Washing-on, Dakota, Scott, Carver) to expand bus service and pay for light rail. That additional tax for metro residents would be on top of a proposed 20-cent gas tax increase statewide — phased in over four years — and higher car-tab and registration fees to pay for other infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. The House’s transportation bill, which nearly matches the governor’s proposal, would spend $7.3 billion on all transportation projects in the next two-year budget cycle.

Citing the state’s projected $1 billion budget surplus, Republicans at the Capitol don’t think the state should raise gas taxes or add higher fees in order to fund the state’s transportation needs, however. The GOP’s proposal would spend about $6.6 billion over the two-year budget window — $450 million of which would be dedicated to roads and bridge projects. The bill would continue using money from the state’s general fund for transportation needs, and provide no new money for metro transit.

“Our disagreement lies as to the source of the money,” Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said in a news release about the different transportation omnibus bills. Newman and Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, led a conference committee on the proposals this week, including on Wednesday, when they compared line-by-line differences in their bills and listened to testimonies from the public.

‘Tremendous pressure’ due to increased cost of Metro Mobility

At that meeting, Met Council Chair Nora Slawik advocated for a final bill that would create a new stream of revenue so public transit in the metro can grow, a position echoed by other transit advocates.

“In the region, we’re seeing businesses move around so they can be on transit … that’s not healthy for the region,” said Will Schroeer, executive director of East Metro Strong, a group of businesses and city and county governments from the Twin Cities eastern suburbs that advocates for more transit options. “We’re also losing talent to regions outside of the region that have much better transit than we do.”

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The motor-vehicle sales tax — a 6.5 percent tax for all new and used vehicles in Minnesota — is currently the main source of revenue for the state’s contribution to metro bus service. But the Met Council says that system is “volatile” and unsustainable; forecasts show that, long-term, the tax will “not provide enough to even preserve and maintain current service levels,” according to Slawik.

Based on February projections for the motor-vehicle sales tax, metro-area bus service is facing a 10-year, $200 million deficit. That’s why the Met Council wants the new metro-specific, sales tax that’s currently part of both the governor’s and House’s transportation proposals.

Nora Slawik
Met Council
Met Council Chair Nora Slawik
In addition to that stream of money, the Met Council also wants another change to how the state spends funding in the metro: a separate budget line for Metro Transit’s federally mandated transit services for seniors and people with disabilities, Metro Mobility. Right now, the service is funded through a transportation package dedicated to the Met Council that also covers light-rail, commuter-train and some bus operations. But with increased demand for Metro Mobility a result of an aging and growing population, according to Slawik — the service’s need for funding is also increasing.

Another factor affecting bus funding: Minnesota law requires the state to pay 50 percent of light rail costs through the Met Council. That means under Minnesota’s current funding structure, every budget cycle the council sets aside money for Metro Mobility first and then light rail. Whatever dollars are left go to to the bus system, according to the Met Council and Metro Transit.

“With current Metro Mobility demand on a path to consume nearly our entire base appropriation by (fiscal year) 2021, no general fund dollars will be left for these other transit services,” Slawik explained in a letter to Hornstein and Newman. “Expanding Metro Mobility without an appropriation (in its own budget line) only accelerates the consumption of our general fund appropriation. When this inevitably happens, light rail and commuter rail operations will be forced onto motor vehicles sales tax (MVST). Since light rail operations are a statutory requirement, those operations will be given priority and metropolitan area bus … will suffer and exacerbate the structural deficit.”

Before the transportation bill conference committee on Wednesday, she put it a little more succinctly: “Metro Mobility puts tremendous pressure on our bus system,” she said in expressing support for the House and governor’s plans, which would set aside more than $150 million for the service in 2020-21.

Dreams of a St. Paul extension 

With a separate budget line for Metro Mobility and a new sales tax, the House’s and governor’s plans would spend about $180 million on bus and train transit in the metro over the next two years.

That money would help cover the construction of stations and equipment for the proposed B line, for example, which Metro Transit planners and local officials tout as being a critical piece in their vision for a more-connected public transportation network.

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Running east-west between Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood and St. Paul, the route would intersect with the future West Lake Station for Southwest LRT. Construction could start as soon as 2022 if the legislative funding is approved, according to Adam Smith, Metro Transit’s senior planner working on the B Line.

Inside EcoLab headquarters in downtown St. Paul this week, a crowd of business leaders and local elected officials including members of the City Council and Mayor Melvin Carter — gathered to explain the economic benefits of the proposed line. It would help the city retain and attract new talent, they said, and help ease traffic congestion and parking conditions.

“Transit is sort of like having the first fax machine,” Carter joked. “If you have one of them, it’s cool to show your visitors. But it gets a whole lot more useful as you build out the network.”

After the gathering, members of the crowd packed into a minibus for a tour of an area officials want to eventually be served by the B line, a St. Paul extension that would include stops in Union Park, Summit-University and downtown. (The current alignment under Metro Transit’s plan stays along the current Route 21, but only goes as far east as Snelling Avenue in Merriam Park.)

Metro Transit is weighing the pros and cons of a longer route now, Smith said: “Not just from our capital construction cost perspective, but also sort of our long-term operating costs, a longer project … would add to the project costs. …That’s one of the reasons I think this is being raised — certainly when it comes to some of the discussions that are going on in the Legislature right now.”

On the tour, city planners pointed out the many new multi-family housing developments, commercial centers, and schools — including Central High School, the University of St. Thomas and Concordia University — near the possible extension.

Currently, the Met Council has set aside a pool of local and federal money to cover less than half of the project’s $54 million price tag, not including the possible downtown link.

Planning and preliminary analysis of the line are complete, and Metro Transit is gearing up to write a formal draft plan. But without a new funding mechanism from the state and other proposed changes, Metro Transit “will not be able to maintain the regular-route bus system we have today, and we will not be able to expand BRT service,” Met Council spokesperson Brickman said in an email: “We won’t be able to advance those projects at all without new funding.”