High-speed transit— coming to a Lake Street near you

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Remodeling is planned to begin late this year for a high-speed transit system on I-35W with a special high occupancy toll (HOT) lane and a bus rapid transit (BRT) lane stretching south from downtown Minneapolis. Rapid transit will go hand in hand with the city’s I-35W/Lake Street Access Project that will provide a BRT station at Lake St., a connection to the Midtown Greenway and ramp access to Lake Street.

The plan will be funded by a $133.3 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant from an Urban Partnership Agreement (UPA) that is aimed to reduce traffic congestion using approaches like tolling and teleworking (which allows tasks like traffic control to be done using modern communication tools from a centralized location).

Plans for the use of UPA funds for local transit were presented by Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and Metro Transit officials to the City’s Transportation and Public Works Committee at a meeting held Jan. 24 at South Minneapolis’ St. Joan of Arc Church.

The HOT lane and BRT lane will replace high occupancy vehicle lanes along I-35W from Burnsville Parkway to downtown Minneapolis, speeding commutes along an 11.5 mile stretch of the I-35W corridor south of I-94 into the Twin Cities while also giving drivers new options for getting home faster. The new system is to be implemented in the downtown area by the end of 2009. A proposed BRT station at Lake Street will be constructed with state bonding, but funding plans have not as yet been finalized.

“The Lake Street BRT station is of the highest priority in rapid transit plans for the city,” said Minneapolis Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (DFL-Ward 8).
“Minneapolis needs solutions that work now, not years and years from now,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters when the state was chosen in August after an eight-month nationwide competition among 28 applicants. A total of $1.1 billion in grants were awarded by the feds.

The secretary noted that every Urban Partner selected proposed some form of congestion pricing. Direct user fees have the advantage both of reducing the enormous costs of congestion and also of raising funds more effectively than the gas tax does to help states and cities build and maintain critical transportation infrastructure, Secretary Peters said. Minnesota Senators Coleman and Klobuchar had also written a letter to Peters in August requesting expedited consideration of this grant in order to alleviate congestion resulting from the I-35W bridge collapse, according to Coleman’ s office.

“Increased traffic congestion has become a major threat to Minnesota’ s quality of life and our prosperity, costing precious time and money for both commuters and businesses,” said Klobuchar in a prepared statement.

The Minnesota plan includes upgraded technology throughout the area to improve mobility for motorists and transit operators and give drivers real-time traffic and transit information. Additionally, leaders plan to shift an additional 500 workers to either a flexible work schedule or to telecommuters. MnDOT will be able to use $13.2 million of the funding immediately to purchase new buses and equipment.

Legislative authority is required to get the federal funds within 90 days of next session opening on May 12. The authorizing legislation package must include the authority to allow driving on the shoulder and for the tolling of users on the shoulder lane. Governor Pawlenty has also proposed a $54.9 million state funding match.

According to figures available from the Minnesota Citizens League, the annual hours of delay due to traffic congestion in the Twin Cities grew from three hours in 1982 to 43 hours in 2003. The goal of the UPA is to realize a 15 to 25 percent reduction in this congestion through an approach centered around the use of innovative congestion management strategies, with a particular emphasis on free-flow pricing that uses supply and demand to allocate limited roadway capacity during peak periods.

“Minnesota has a huge opportunity to demonstrate a comprehensive attack on congestion in the I-35W corridor south of downtown Minneapolis,” says the Citizens League website. “Let’ s not squander a major effort.”