The Orange Line is in Jeopardy

This article by author Monte Castleman first appeared on StreetsMN. Reposted with permission.

Dakota County has decided to leave the CTIB (County Transit Improvement Board). The CTIB allegedly retaliated by refusing to fill a $12 million gap from the failed bonding bill with CTIB funds; this puts the Orange Line in jeopardy as the bulk of the funding ($120 out of $150 million) is expected to come from the CTIB pot. Thus the entire project could be delayed or even dropped.

One thing is very, very important: The highway portion of the I-35W/Orange Line project in south Minneapolis must be under contract by June 30, 2018.  This is not a MnDOT policy decision,  or even a bluff or ultimatum, but state law. The flyover bridge from I-35W north to I-94 west, and the braid bridge carrying southbound I-35W over the northbound downtown exits ramp are both Chapter 152 bridges, in poor condition. In the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse, these were two bridges required to be replaced. The plan is to take advantage to reconfigure the interchanges to reduce the extreme congestion problems and allow for the Orange Line. If there’s no funding for BRT, or at least the capital improvements in the area like the Lake Street BRT station and the direct BRT ramps to downtown, then the project will proceed without BRT.  Of course they could just leave dirt in the middle for future Orange Line improvements, but now you’re dealing with construction inflation and the inefficiencies and disruption of doing it in two pieces.

A second complication is the I-35W Minnesota River bridge is scheduled for replacement starting  in 2020, a year after the Orange Line is scheduled to open. The existing bridge is deteriorating, and the southbound side has substandard lanes and no shoulder (a result of a modification to squeeze in an auxiliary lane). As a regular user, I believe this can’t come soon enough. The project will include a new northbound auxiliary lane and a bicycle trail also. But there will be the usual pain of construction congestion and the High Occupancy Vehicle / Toll Lane will only be available in the peak direction during construction. Concerns have been raised about the ability of the Orange Line to enter from the right at MN 13, get over to the center lane, and then get back to the right to exit at 98th street with the construction related increased congestion. If the project is delayed a year or so it could develop an unsavory reputation for delays right off the bat, the sort that are plaguing NorthStar.

I-35W Minnesota River Bridge

I-35W Minnesota River Bridge, in worse shape than it looks.

The Reasons For Leaving

Dakota County is pretty upfront that they feel they are not getting out of CTIB what they put in and they want to use a local tax to fund road projects instead. But you can’t help but wonder if the lack of rail service has something to do with it. Rail bias is pretty strong in the suburbs; I know quite a few people who use light rail to get to downtown, but haven’t been on a bus in decades. Once I even went to downtown St. Paul on light rail which would have taken half the time on the bus. I recall an anecdote on the forums: a visitor from out-of-town got on the Green Line in downtown Minneapolis instead of the Blue Line and wound up perplexed at Union Depot instead of the Mall of America. The commenter offered to show her how to use the bus, but she declined and got back on the Green Line towards Minneapolis instead.  Putting a fancy name on a bus and putting it on the transit map as a purported equal to a rail line is unlikely to convince people who don’t ride buses to do so. The underwhelming performance of the Red Line could be that it doesn’t go downtown or the long scenic route (now being fixed with CTIB funds) around Cedarvale, but it could just be rail bias cannot be overcome.

Metro Red Line Bus

“METRO Red Line bus” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by metrotransitmn

The existing rail lines are pretty useless for the majority of Dakota County residents. I’m sure there are some that use the 28th Avenue park and ride, but to get there you have to fight horrendous congestion on the Cedar Avenue bridge so you might as well keep driving towards downtown. Hennepin County has gotten the Green Line, the Blue Line and (assuming funding for those doesn’t fall apart too) the Green and Blue Line extensions; Anoka County has Northstar; Ramsey has the Green Line and possibly the Riverview Line and Rush Line. Meanwhile Dakota County doesn’t have an inch of track and there’s nothing even remotely planned.  The Robert Street Streetcar seems to be stalled and there’s even a law against studies on the Dan Patch corridor. Had the Blue Line gone across the river and/or I-35W LRT been built, would Dakota County feel differently? I know I’m going to get flooded with comments about “we shouldn’t build LRT to cornfield,” so I’m not going to argue yes or no here and maybe it’s OK to let Dakota County leave if we’d have to do that, but I’m just throwing out one possibility for why they feel the way they do.

Of course, just as important would be better service to those people who already choose to or are required to use transit, which includes reverse commuters or people who want to shop in Burnsville’s Heart of the City or in the future Burnsville Mall. But I submit there’s not large numbers of those in Dakota County, at least not in comparison to the city (where even the overwhelming majority of households own car) or at least they don’t have a lot of political influence. Common too are people who work downtown and willing to ride express buses, for whom the Orange Line doesn’t offer much of an advantage, aside from maybe the ability to get home at an odd time if kids get sick or for doctors appointments.

One of the issues in trying to attract new riders and better service to dense areas is the station location at Heart of the City. Do you run service to the existing mammoth park and ride station separated by the pedestrian-hostile MN 13? Or do you build a new station with much less parking but much closer to and on the same side of the highway as the buildings? Perhaps being realistic about the potential to attract new “choice” riders, Dakota County chose the latter. There’s a proposal to do something about the intersection, but in addition to the usual funding problems, MnDOT is waiting for Burnsville to decide if they want to upscale it into an interchange, or downscale it into more a local street. Either would be vastly superior to pedestrians trying to cross it as it is now.

Scott County Opted Out 

So what could Dakota County do now that they’re out? Take the case of Scott County. If a county is not in the CTIB, they are allowed to levy a local sales tax of up to 1/2 of 1% for transportation purposes. Scott County was never in the CTIB, and they have in fact chosen to levy the sales tax along with a $20 excise tax on motor vehicle sales. This gives them $6 million a year until the tax sunsets at the end of 2022. Scott County plans to use $1 million for transit and the remainder for highway safety and expansion projects; some projects have been planned for close to two decades and some have just popped up out of nowhere.

Here’s a list:

  1. New interchanges on County State Aid Highway (CSAH) 17 (Marschall Road) at CSAH 14, at CSAH 82, and at MN 13/282. This joins a newly built interchange at CSAH 14. Scott County has enormous plans for CSAH 17; a principal arterial trunk highway (presumably traded with the state for  the current MN 13 and MN 282), for now an expressway with interchanges at major roads but possibly a full freeway someday.
  2. New interchanges on US 169 at Jordan and MN 41 which the state has been promising for years but never had the funding: a new overpass at Belle Plaine and a frontage road system between Shakopee and Jordan.
  3. New interchange on I-35 at CSAH 86 and capacity expansion to the interchange at CSAH 2.
  4. Intersection improvements on MN 13 at CSAH 21 and at CSAH 42
  5. Extending CSAH 8 west from MN 13 to US 169
  6. Frontage roads along MN 13 in the Savage area, and a new interchange at Chowen Ave (actually in Dakota County but congestion here is primarily a problem for Scott County).
  7. Unspecified capacity improvements to the Bloomington Ferry Bridge. Any meaningful congestion fix like a third span is out of the question with the level of funding, and so far the federal government hasn’t been keen about converting the shoulder to a travel lane and having substandard lane widths. I personally oppose this too, but will note that one possibility that might be suggested is a dynamic shoulder that would only be used for travel during a few hours in the peak direction, as was proposed for I-494 in the northwest suburbs.
scott-2

Scott County projects: Red: New or improved interchange funded with local taxes, Yellow: Other projects funded with local taxes, Black: Recently built or improved interchanges in the area by Scott County and others.

It’s likely Dakota County sees all Scott County’s plans and is jealous. Getting badly needed highway safety and  expansion projects funded is a statewide problem, but uniquely the suburban counties have the ability to do something about it. Anoka County, like Scott, has also been very vocal about perceived anti-suburban bias on the Met Council in general and wanting US 10 fixed specifically; Anoka is now also thinking about pulling out. A couple of projects that I can think of that Dakota County wants are new interchanges on CSAH 63 (Argenta Trail) at I-494 and at MN 55, as well as additional lanes on roads in the general area, an “almost cloverleaf” on US 52 at CSAH 42 and a new interchange on I-35 at CSAH 50.

Ultimately, I do believe the Orange Line should be built and will be valuable to the region, but it’s now a fact Dakota County has left the CTIB and is not coming back. Whether you agree with their decision or not, it’s time to move forward and we need to act fast to make sure the Orange Line stays alive.

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