Southwest Light Rail project spokesperson Trevor Roy (R) walks with a person on a bridge constructed for the light rail line during a tour. The 14.5-mile line, scheduled to open in 2027, faces cost overruns. Photo by H. Jiahong Pan/Minnesota Reformer.
The new D Line is a bus rapid transit marvel that mostly replaced the old Route 5 — the state’s busiest bus route — running past diverse neighborhoods on Portland, Chicago and Fremont Avenues in Brooklyn Center, Minneapolis, Richfield and Bloomington. It has only been running since early December. But it’s already been the source of excitement and time savings among transit riders like South Minneapolis native Jamar Patterson.
“I’ll probably be at work seven minutes before I gotta get there versus when I took the 5, I’d probably have to leave [home] at 11:50 a.m. just give or take for the stops,” said Patterson on his first ride on the D Line while on his way to work at a shipping company in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood.
Although construction of the D Line was funded by past divided legislatures, Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, promised at the route’s ribbon cutting an easier time bankrolling more of these faster bus lines now that his party has a trifecta on state government, and as he and his legislative colleagues figure out how to spend a $17.3 billion surplus.
In addition to more of these fast buses, which get riders to their destination 20 to 25% faster than a conventional bus, they also plan to address safety issues, make it easier to bike and walk, extend passenger rail through more of the state and rein in the Metropolitan Council after its mismanagement of the Southwest Light Rail green line extension.
Reining in ‘the pandora’s box’
The Met Council, the region’s gubernatorial-appointed agency that addresses planning, transportation, parks, public housing and sewage systems, has been credited with controlling sprawl and creating an equitably prosperous region. But the tumultuous past few years for mass transit, as well as cost overruns and delays in building the $2.75 billion Southwest Light Rail project, have fueled calls by Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, to elect those who oversee it.
The Met Council, with its sprawling mission and tangled regional politics, is a proverbial policy and political pandora’s box, but Hornstein and Dibble say they plan to make electing the Met Council a priority this session. Their proposal has support from some legislators as well as some groups like environmental organization Minnesota 350.
But other legislators, as well as some of those who serve on the Met Council, want to either expand the body, stagger appointments or abolish it entirely. Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, and the GOP lead on the Transportation Committee, wants to see the part of the Met Council that distributes federal transportation dollars to local entities folded into a different entity that distributes funding across the state.
Faster transit for whom?
Meanwhile, as the Met Council struggles to plug the Southwest Light Rail’s projected $340 million funding gap, Hornstein said he is open to bailing out the project — with some conditions. But Hornstein wants to see two reports the Office of Legislative Auditor will release on the project this session.
Light rail aside, the Legislature may reduce metro area transit fares and will likely fund construction of rapid bus lines similar to the D Line on Como and Maryland avenues as well as Rice and Robert Streets.
Even with a surplus and the possibility of big federal dollars from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, advocates and legislators say the state needs a dedicated transit funding source because much of the surplus can only be used on one-time expenses. Hornstein said they intend to increase the metro sales tax for metro-area transit, while looking into other funding sources. Minnesota’s transit agencies are predominantly funded by a sales tax on motor vehicles.
Lawmakers will look at enhanced training for the metro region’s transit drivers in boarding and deboarding people with disabilities in the snow. They will also address decriminalizing fare evasion, which they have unsuccessfully tried to pass for years.
Metro Transit Police continues to struggle with understaffing; as of this month, it is short 61 full-time officers and 58 community service officers.* (Disclosure: The author lobbied for a similar bill in February 2020 and said “abolish Metro Transit Police” at a Met Council meeting in 2018.)
The University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies and the Minnesota Department of Transportation had planned a report detailing how commuting patterns have changed since the pandemic, helping the metro area plan the future of mass transit. Originally slated to be complete by February, the agencies have indefinitely delayed its completion because they don’t have the money.
Connecting with state rail
The Legislature will look at building and operating the Northern Lights Express to Duluth, as well adding a second passenger train to run between St. Paul and Chicago. MnDOT officials say money is the only barrier to beginning construction on the Northern Lights Express and starting the second train to Chicago. With money and signed agreements in place, they expect limited second Chicago train service to start this year and construction for the line in Winona and La Crescent to start next year.
The Legislature may address extending the Northstar line — which runs between Minneapolis’ Target Field station and Sherburne County’s Big Lake — to St. Cloud, even though its ridership cratered 90% because of the pandemic. (The Met Council and MnDOT are wrapping up a study on what to do about it.) Lawmakers are also considering studying an extension of the second Chicago train to Fargo, as well as trains to Kansas City via Albert Lea. All Aboard Minnesota, a rail advocacy organization, supports these corridors and also hopes the Legislature will commission studies on running passenger rail to Sioux Falls via Mankato.
Republicans oppose most of this rail expansion because they believe buses and cars can transport people more efficiently.
Biking and walking
The DFL-controlled Legislature is poised to allocate more money to build sidewalks and bike lanes after they failed to do so last year. They may also allocate funds to support Nice Ride, the Minneapolis-based shared bicycle system on the verge of bankruptcy after Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota announced plans to withdraw as a fiscal sponsor this summer.
The Legislature could also pass a program to provide rebates to people who buy an electric bicycle. Electric bicycles have proven to be more popular than electric cars; bike shops in Minnesota have reported increasing year-over-year sales. Denver had to repeatedly pause its E-bike incentive program last year because it was too popular and the program kept running out of money.
Unlikely to happen this session: Allowing people who bike to cruise past stop signs, a practice first legalized in Idaho. Although supported by the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, Hornstein is hesitant to support it because of safety concerns.
The Legislature is expected to address increasing safety problems on Minnesota roadways. The state suffered its second-highest number of fatalities since 2007 — over 430 —resulting from vehicle crashes.
The Legislature may consider allowing more local communities to reduce speed limits, and consider the city of Minneapolis’ request to implement a speed enforcement camera pilot program. It faces mixed support from transportation advocates and opposition from the GOP. Petersburg wants a bill that holds the drivers — not the vehicle owners — accountable if they use it to commit a crime caught on camera.
Lawmakers may also put more money into the so-called Corridors of Commerce program, which Hornstein said was instrumental in creating in 2013. The program widens highways at key choke points. Although a 2022 MnDOT study found crashes decreased in seven out of 11 corridors widened under the program, the average traffic speeds increased in all but two of those corridors. Environmentalists and safety advocates fear more highway widening and the attendant increase in speed will lead to more deadly crashes and prevent the state from meeting climate goals.
The House and Senate recently introduced a bill to provide $315.5 million in trunk highway funds to match federal funds to fix roads and bridges. Legislators are expected to introduce a bill to match federal funds to build out an electric vehicle charging network. They will also confront how to tax electric vehicles, anticipating the decline in gas tax revenues as people adopt electric vehicles in the coming years.
The Legislature has already started moving bills to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, overturning a 2003 law.
Supporters such as Carolina Ortiz — who leads Comunidades Organizando el Poder y la Accion Latina and has been advocating for this on behalf of her parents since age 9 — say this will make Minnesota roads safer and drivers more confident.
“It’s important for [community members] to have that access, and to be able to get a license and drive without a fear of being stopped or drive without the fear of getting into an accident and not being able to call for help,” Ortiz said. “Especially outside of the Twin Cities, it’s so crucial to be able to have access to a driver’s license.”
*Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the shortage of Metro Transit Police officers and community service officers.
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