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What now for Metro Transit’s bus rapid transit plans?

The 2019 state budget deal omits any money for new transit, which means Saturday’s celebration of the opening of the C Line BRT could be the last party of its kind for some time.

C Line
The C Line will begin service between the Brooklyn Center Transit Center and Minneapolis on Saturday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

On Saturday, Metro Transit will mark a milestone in its effort to expand bus rapid transit across the Twin Cities metro: The C Line will begin service between the Brooklyn Center Transit Center and Minneapolis, giving riders a light-rail-like experience with new stations, increased frequency and fewer stops.

The C Line will be a sequel to the region’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) route, the A Line, which launched three years ago to shuttle passengers between south Minneapolis and the Rosedale Center.

During state budget talks this year, supporters often touted that line’s success — ridership has increased about one third since its start — as a proof there’s an appetite for BRT in the region, and the state would share benefits if it invested more money in it.

“We’ve got the success from the A line it’s all win,” said Will Schroeer, who is executive director of East Metro Strong, a group of businesses and city and county governments from the eastern suburbs that advocated for more transit options at the state Capitol this year.

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With a 2019 state budget deal that omits any money for new transit, however, the celebration of the C Line opening could be the last party of its kind for some time. Metro Transit and regional leaders’ plan for a 10-plus regional BRT network is in limbo. That network would include a new Brooklyn Center-Bloomington D line, which officials hoped to break ground on next year; a planned E line, which would run along Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis; and a B line, which would run from Minneapolis to St. Paul along Lake Street and Marshall Avenue.

“Based on our current status of the funding and what happened in session, we can’t build that system without the new transit funding,” said Nora Slawik, chair of the Metropolitan Council, which oversees transportation projects. “We got to get this done. It’s going to take longer.”

The rise and fall of transit funding at the 2019 session

The Met Council started the legislative session on a high note. In his initial budget proposal in February, Gov. Tim Walz proposed a metro-specific sales tax and a higher gas tax, as well as new fees, to help fund electric coaches, expanded regular bus routes and additional BRT lines in the metro.

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Gov. Tim Walz
Over the course of the session, he and other transit supporters said the metro-specific investment would improve the system so that more people use it, easing parking and traffic congestion. But some critics pointed to declining ridership numbers — figures show slight decreases in passengers for most transit each year since 2015 — for existing bus service to argue that it was too risky to spend tens of millions of dollars on routes that may end up serving fewer passengers than current routes. 

But in final budget talks, the conversation among state leaders was less about transportation trends and more about where the money to pay for new projects should come from. The DFL-controlled House wanted to create a new stream of revenue: 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 as part of a $7.3 billion transportation package. That additional tax for metro residents would have been on top a proposed 20-cent increase in the state’s per-gallon gas — phased in over four years — and higher car-tab and registration fees to pay for other infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.

Citing the state’s projected $1 billion budget surplus, the GOP-controlled Senate argued the state should not raise gas taxes or add higher fees in order to fund the state’s transportation needs and proposed a smaller transportation package ($6.6 billion over the two-year budget window) that included no new money for metro transit.

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In the end, Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka agreed on a $6.7 billion transportation deal that satisfied Republicans’ pleas not to raise taxes and denied most of the Met Council’s requests for transit.

The Met Council and one of its core divisions, Metro Transit, did count a budget win in one area, though: The final spending plan includes a separate line for the transit agency’s federally mandated transit services for seniors and people with disabilities, Metro Mobility. Currently, the service is funded through a transportation package 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 increasing and it doesn’t want to have to compete for money with other transportation services.

The final budget agreement also boosts Metro Mobility’s portion of state dollars with one-time funding increases — an additional $23.17 million in 2020 and $13 million in 2021 — and expands the service to Lakeville. Unless state lawmakers decide differently next year, the system’s base funding will return to its existing level of $56 million in the 2022- 2023 biennium.

“No one got everything they wanted. But I am proud of the progress we made in building a prosperous, thriving, and equitable region. We prioritized people with disabilities by ensuring Metro Mobility will have its own line item in future budget,” Slawik said in a statement. “We weren’t successful in our push for new transit funding; and while I’m disappointed, I know we continue to see growing, bipartisan agreement on the need to invest new funding into our regional transit system.”

Some projects continue to move forward

The budget plan comes at a critical point for the Met Council, Metro Transit and county partners, as the agencies aggressively tout light-rail and bus lines that are in the pipeline as key to solving the region’s equity and housing issues.

They include the under-construction Southwest light rail, as well as the planned Bottineau light-rail line (linking Minneapolis and northwestern suburbs), Orange Line BRT between Minneapolis and Burnsville, Gold Line BRT (between St. Paul and Woodbury), Rush Line BRT (between St. Paul and White Bear Lake) and Riverview corridor (linking St. Paul, the airport and Mall of America).

“Those continue to make progress,” Slawik said.

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Those projects are able to move forward despite the 2019 budget deal, in part, because of federal grant programs and agreements via the Counties Transit Improvement Board a regional transit-funding organization that disbanded in 2017. The board included officials from five metro counties (Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington) and levied a quarter-cent sales tax that it had to spend collectively on transit projects. Now, with CTIB gone, the individual counties are overseeing sales taxes to fund the new transit projects.

How, or to what extent, the existence of CTIB this year would have impacted the state’s transportation spending remains a question. Kate Brickman, spokeswoman for the Met Council, said it would have at least alleviated the high attention on Democrats’ proposed metro-area sales tax increase, since that type of hike would have likely gone through the county board instead.

Another result of this year’s budget decision, she said: A 10-year, $200 million deficit for the metro-area’s bus service remains, though the state’s spending will help slightly. With a new budget line for Metro Mobility and a boost in funding for that service, Brickman said Metro Transit will not have to take some “prudent fiscal measures” like that of the past two years, including a hiring freeze, though money will still be tight.

Will Schroeer
Will Schroeer
“We’ll be able to continue our current operations as is without obviously building new corridors,” she said. “In terms of the structural deficit beyond the next two years, it’s still there and it continues to grow. That hasn’t been solved.”

Considering that funding problem, Schroeer, of East Metro Strong, said it’s no coincidence ridership for regular bus routes is on the decline. “Everybody at Metro Transit is working hard to provide the best service they can with the money they have,” he said. “Without more funds, you can only do so much.”

At the legislature this year, East Metro Strong not only supported the Met Council’s request for new BRT lines, but also advocated for money to fully fund Metro Transit’s operations and improve existing transit service in Greater Minnesota.

These projects get more expensive every year. We expect to build them eventually, but it’ll just cost everybody more money when we do,” Schroeer said. “But it’s not only a pocketbook loss, it’s a loss to Minnesotans because people can’t get to work; Employers can’t hire; Seniors can’t get to the store.”

Making the case 

On Saturday morning, a group of business leaders and elected officials — including Walz, Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who chaired the House’s transportation committee, and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey — are planning to gather at a new BRT station at the intersection of Minneapolis Penn and Lowry avenues to celebrate the start of the C Line.

Former Gov. Mark Dayton had prioritized the route years ago, and Saturday will be the first ribbon-cutting ceremony for BRT since 2016, when Sen. Amy Klobuchar led a ceremony for the launch of the A Line in St. Paul. The C Line and A Line are part of a massive BRT network that Metro Transit began drafting in 2012.

This session, the Met Council and Metro Transit had the D Line as an immediate funding priority. That line would run along the transit agency’s busiest bus corridor, Route 5, and faces a funding gap of about $20 million. Still, engineers are continuing design work on the project, and it will be “shovel ready” for construction to begin in 2020, Brickman said. But crews will not be able to break ground in that timeline under this year’s budget deal.

“We’re ready to move forward, but we’re waiting on that funding,” she said. “In terms of whether the project is going to be delayed or not, is the question.

As a result of the 2019 legislative session, the Met Council will also not have the money to build the E Line and B Line. Those are less developed than the D Line, but project leaders are moving forward with planning anyway, in hopes that state lawmakers have a change of heart in next year’s bonding session or the 2021 budget year.

“We’ll continue to do the planning and development so that way, you know, if and when funding does come through, we’re not starting at square one,” Brickman said.

In coming months, the Met Council chair said she plans to share what she sees as the benefits of BRT with local officials and state lawmakers, as part of her goal to fund and build the projects.

“We’ll be taking that case back out there for the next two years,” Slawik said. “Overall, the session is all about our hopes and dreams for the future of our region, and we can still move forward with our transit projects.”