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Retooled I-35W project would add Lake Street bus rapid transit station

The Minneapolis City Council signs off on downsized $114 million freeway improvement plan.

Here's the view looking out from the bus rapid transit station at 46th Street. A proposed Lake Street one would allow buses to pick up and drop off passengers without exiting the freeway.

The “freeway expansion project” that was endorsed by the Minneapolis City Council in 2007 has been pared down and retooled with bus rapid transit as the No. 1 priority.

The 2007 price tag also has been cut from $500 million for the freeway expansion to $114 million for a bus rapid-transit station on Interstate 35W and improvements for bus transit and two freeway exit ramps to access the Lake Street area.

“People’s eyes rolled,” said Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, recalling her early days on the council when she explained the massive project to constituents.

In 2007, the $500 million 35W project called for construction of nine bridges between Franklin and 38th Street, three ramps at Lake Street and space set aside for a future transit station at Lake Street on the freeway. The City Council could only accept or reject the plan. Now, most of that plan is off the table.

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“This is a much different project than we had in 2007,” said Glidden. “Make no bones about it — this is a critical moment for the city.”

“It’s a whole lot easier to find $114 million than half a billion,” said Mayor R.T. Rybak. “Getting this right means it will finally be possible to have bus rapid transit in this region.”

When complete, bus rapid transit will be available on 35W from downtown Minneapolis to Lakeville with buses traveling at freeway speeds. Currently, there is a 35W bus rapid transit station at 46th Street, but buses must move out of the rapid transit lane to the far-right lane for the stops at Lake Street.

Council members held a special meeting Tuesday to endorse the plan (PDF) after being informed by the federal government that the city would lose $8.9 million if they did not endorse a plan for the project by Oct. 1.

The city received updated estimates for the project earlier this summer, but “we still needed to tighten our belts,” said City Engineer Steve Kotke. At that point, the cost came to $151 million, but a decision was made to drop a northbound freeway entrance ramp from Lake Street, shaving $37 million off the total.

Currently, the 35W bus stop at Lake Street is accessible only by stairs, with a small, partially enclosed shelter at the edge of traffic for riders to wait for buses.

The proposed transit station will be in the center of the freeway, as is the case at 46th Street, with access by stairs or elevator to the enclosed shelter.  Buses will not have to leave the rapid transit lane to pick up passengers at Lake Street.

“This is a critical missing gap in bus rapid transit,” said Glidden. Bus rapid transit was to have been in place this year, but that has not been possible without a center-lane transit station at Lake Street.

Improvements to public transit at Lake Street and 35W also are seen as another step toward attracting developers to the area.

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“This is another catalyst to reopen Nicollet,” said Council Member Meg Tuthill, who promised she would be there when the street reopened no matter what.

“The day Nicollet goes through I want to be there with a sledgehammer,” said Rybak, adding later that developers now reject the area because Lake Street access from 35W is difficult and there is no bus rapid transit.

The council voted 11 to 1 in favor of the project, with Council Member Robert Lilligren the only “no” vote. Lilligren said he thought the northbound exit ramp at 28th Street was not needed.

The vote endorses the city’s plan as it continues to work with Hennepin County, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Council on the overall final plan