The Orange Line Defunding is a Crisis for Hennepin County

Metro Red Line Bus. Orange Line buses will have a similar appearance.

Metro Red Line Bus. Orange Line buses will have a similar appearance.

Residents of South Minneapolis, Richfield, and Bloomington got some very bad news last week. In response to a move by Dakota County to leave the Counties Transit Improvement Board, CTIB is considering withdrawing its funding for the Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit. The Orange Line would be the metro’s first true bus rapid transit line, offering similar frequency to and better transit time than our Light Rail lines. Unlike our light rail lines, however, the Orange Line will cost only about $150 million — less than 1/1o the cost of Southwest LRT.

Although end-to-end, the line connects Dakota County to downtown Minneapolis, the vast majority of the capital investment, stops, and riders are within Hennepin County. Although I do not agree with Dakota County’s decision to leave CTIB, I am outraged that the CTIB board is playing political games with a much-needed, cost-effective transit line that will serve my community.

The Orange Line

METRO Orange Line Route Map

Source: Metro Transit

The Orange Line would run along the 35W corridor from downtown Minneapolis, through South Minneapolis, Richfield, and Bloomington — each getting two stops — and terminating in Burnsville. A future extension is contemplated to Lakeville, but not included as part of this project.

Within the 494 beltway, the Orange Line is similar to the 535 bus line — however, the Orange Line will vastly improve on the 535, with improved frequency, station experience, and ride quality. Like the “A” line and LRT, the Orange Line will have off-board payment and ticket machines available at every station.

Infrastructure Improvements for Hennepin County

The capital improvements being done as part of the line will also significantly improve the speed and reliability of the ride, for both the Orange Line and other express buses. Lake Street Station will be rebuilt to a high-quality, accessible, sheltered station that will allow buses to pick up and drop off customers without having to cross five lanes of rush-hour traffic. At 494, the bus will exit 35W and go through a new underpass between a 76th St Station (serving offices of Best Buy and US Bank) and American Blvd Station (serving the Southtown and Penn-American District). The underpass will also provide an essential bike-ped connection where there is currently a one-mile gap between crossings.

Lake Street 35W Transit Station

This transit station may not happen, since some of the buses passing through will go to Dakota County. Source: Metro Transit


“A Dakota County Nexus”

In the presentation at the last CTIB meeting, the Orange Line funding was listed alongside projects benefitting solely Dakota County — like a rebuild of the Cedar Grove Transit Station. I was surprised to see the Orange Line framed as a Dakota County project — in part because I, myself, had planned to use it to go from Richfield to downtown, and in part because the majority of the stops and improvements are clearly within Hennepin County.

Orange Line as having a "Dakota County Nexus"

Orange Line as having a “Dakota County Nexus”. Source: CTIB/MN Rides

I spoke with Christina Morrison, the Metro Transit project manager for the Orange Line. According to Morrison, 92% of the 2040 Orange Line boardings are anticipated to be from Hennepin County. This is overwhelmingly a project that will serve Hennepin County residents and businesses.

What’s more, according to Morrison, CTIB’s $45 million contribution would come from the years 2016, 2017, and 2018 — and Dakota County’s payments to CTIB would not terminate until the end of 2018. Even with their withdrawal, Dakota County would still be paying their fair share toward this project.

Time to Act

CTIB will decide whether to move forward with Orange Line funding at their August meeting. I strongly encourage you to to contact your CTIB representatives to express your support for the project. For Hennepin County, those representatives are Peter McLaughlin <> and Mike Opat <>.

The Orange Line is an important, cost-effective project that will make 35W functional for all-day transit service. And residents of Hennepin County should not be punished, simply because they are on the way to Burnsville.

Sean Hayford Oleary

About Sean Hayford Oleary

Sean Hayford Oleary is a web developer and planner. He serves on the Richfield City Council, and previously on the city's Planning and Transportation commissions. Articles are written from a personal perspective and not on behalf of Richfield or others. Sean has a masters in urban planning from the Humphrey School. Follow his love of streets, home improvement, and all things Richfield on Twitter @sdho.

17 thoughts on “The Orange Line Defunding is a Crisis for Hennepin County

  1. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Very unfortunate situation, I agree. Anyone who has reason to drive our freeways and other arterial roads during rush hour ought to feel sorry about this. (Last week when I left the West Bank at 4:00 pm and drove north on 35W it took an hour to reach a memorial event home in Lino Lakes.)

    Although the CTIB is at the nexus of this particular situation, I think having the Met Council commissioners elected directly from districts of equal population would greatly help deal with underlying issues.

    1. Nick Minderman

      I disagree that changing the Met Council to an elected body would change this outcome. In fact, it might make it even worse. Most of the bad decisions at the Met Council are made to placate activist elected officials serving on advisory committees representing other jurisdictions. An elected council would defeat the purpose of a regional perspective and make it into a mini-legislature.

      That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to changing the nomination process.

  2. Denny

    MET Council is short sighted ,this corridor should be a LRT not gloried a 40′ bus.Its a busy corridor with rush hours and events bigger buses will be needed.Spending $100 +on RL and OL is premature.Just got back from Denver they are opening 4 LRT lines this year.They have even more sprawl than the TC and poor bus services yet manages to attract riders.

    1. Monte Castleman

      LRT for the corridor died when it was obvious there was no funding (1 Billion in late 1980s) dollars or political will to take a row of houses in Minneapolis for a comprehensive I-35W rebuild. When the HOV lane was added in Bloomington in the early 1990s they used cheap asphalt so it could be easily removed, but around 2000 they rebuilt it in Richfield with 60 year concrete when it was obvious LRT was dead.

  3. Jesse

    If Dakota pulls it of CTIB and they’re still getting free transit, then every county will pull out. This makes sense to me. Dakota cab use their savings to build their own lines, or pay for the extension into their territory.

      1. Daniel D

        Very much so. The issue right now is the looming September FTA funding deadline, which requires a matching dollar amount that can’t be met without the CTIB contribution. There isn’t time to submit a redesigned Orange Line without the parts in Dakota County before that deadline.

        However, once federal funds were secured, there will be plenty of opportunities to make the operation (or existence!) of the Burnsville section of the line contingent on Dakota County paying their proper share of the operating costs. From this article, it sounds like they’re paying their part of initial construction costs whether they like it or not if CTIB approves the funds.

        1. Daniel D

          (This reminds me that I ought to get an account here so I can edit posts…)

          It is worth noting that even after pulling out of CTIB, Dakota County still voted to commit their part of local funds to the project via the Dakota RRA. That isn’t much in the grand scheme ($2.1m from DCRRA vs $12.8m from the Hennepin RRA and $45.2m proposed from CTIB) but they’re still interested in the success of the Orange Line.

          A situation where CTIB and Dakota could negotiate to share operating costs on this one project isn’t that far-fetched, and Met Council has even floated some possible numbers for such an arrangement past Dakota at least. Whether those on both sides can get over the bad feelings in the air enough to get the line built in the first place is, sadly, still in question.

      2. Monte Castleman

        What about diverting it to Valley West with a stop at City Hall, which will be the new location for the Southdale courthouse?. Valley West isn’t much now but Bloomington has (very) long term plans to redevelop it someday.

  4. GlowBoy

    Wow, this is a sad precedent. I too imagine other counties will pull out for the same reason, leaving just Hennepin and (I hope still) Ramsey.

    But Dakota County’s logic is a little off. To say Hennepin Country gets most of the benefit of the Orange Line is like saying Hennepin County gets most of the benefit of I-35W from downtown to Burnsville, and that Hennepin County should pay for the freeway.

    Even if not that many Dakota County residents will ride the Orange line, there are many thousands of Dakota County residents who drive I-35W into downtown Minneapolis, and they will benefit from the congestion alleviation provided by this route.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      > “To say Hennepin Country gets most of the benefit of the Orange Line is like saying Hennepin County gets most of the benefit of I-35W from downtown to Burnsville, and that Hennepin County should pay for the freeway.”

      I’d agree with this statement if it weren’t for the fact that so much of the ridership (92% of boardings) is anticipated to be within Hennepin County. I think the main movement this supports is from jobs on the 494 strip to residential (and transit transfers) at Lake St and downtown. The connection it provides to Dakota County is somewhat secondary.

      1. GlowBoy

        Right, but my point is transit users won’t be the only beneficiaries of the Orange Line. Anyone who drives I-35W through south Hennepin County will benefit, and that includes a lot of Dakota County residents.

        Traffic is a regional problem, and means the counties need to work together. For each county to opt out of projects with regional impact that don’t directly benefit them much is to dismantle the entire system. If we’re going to go that route, then I want to stop my tax dollars from paying for massive freeway projects in the suburbs. By this logic, why am I paying for the approaching-a-billion-dollar boondoggle bridge in Stillwater?

  5. GlowBoy

    As for the Orange Line route itself, I do have a major frustration: as a Diamond Lake resident in lower south Minneapolis, I live very close to 35W, and at certain times of day I will probably be able to hear the Orange Line buses from my backyard. Yet I’m over two miles from the nearest station.

    The stretch from 46th to 66th – over three miles of the route – will be the longest between stations other than the almost completely unpopulated segment from 98th Avenue to Burnsville. Sure, this part of Minneapolis is relatively low density with mostly single family homes, but certainly at least as dense as other suburban sections that benefit from higher station density.

    I realize it’s hard to reasonably site an in-between station (due in part, ironically, to the lack of existing east-west bus routes between 46th and 66th, but also to the way the gargantuan Crosstown Commons is constructed), but once you’re onto the Commons, you’re actually right parallel to a fairly dense area (66th Avenue) with significant entrenched poverty (anywhere within a couple blocks of 62), most of which is not that close to the proposed station at 66th/35W.

    I realize it’s probably too late, but an additional stop at either 60th/35W or Nicollet/Commons (not very far from each other) sure would help fill that gap. I thought about Lyndale/Commons too, which might also make sense thanks to the new Lakewinds Co-Op and apartment/retail density there, but it would actually be fairly close to the proposed 66th street station, and #4 isn’t that busy of a bus line; whereas Nicollet (and to some degree 60th) gets you the Hub shopping center and transfers to the very busy #18 line on Nicollet.

    I’ve ridden the #535 a few times using the 46th street station, but it really is inconvenient. Although I live near the #5 line, it’s something like 10-12 blocks to walk from 46th/Chicago to the 46th station. And now that Car2Go has constricted and put me about half a mile outside their service area, that’s a poor option too.

    So the only viable option for me to get to the 46th station to actually use the 535 (or the Orange Line) is to bike there. That’s a bit over two miles, not entirely unreasonable, but there is one big problem. There are NO BIKE RACKS at the 46th Street station, either up at street level nor down at platform level. My only option is to lock up to a signpost somewhere in the surrounding neighborhood, still a 5+ minute walk from the actual bus platform. Anyone know if the Orange Line plan includes upgrading the 46th street station to include bike parking?

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I’d be supportive of having a stop at Diamond Lake Road. 60th St is a poor match because it could not be done in the near term without building an on-line station. I think future freeway improvements could add additional stops, as long as it’s not stopping constantly. I agree 2-3 miles is a very long distance. It might also make sense to include a stop at 38th St, but that would have to be an on-line station as part of a future improvement.

      There are bike racks at 46th St station, but not on the bridge itself. There are quite a few at the corner of Stevens and E 46th St, only about a minute walk from the station entrance.

      1. GlowBoy

        I see. I’m coming from the east side of I-35W, so didn’t see the ones over on the other side at Stevens. I’ll check for those next time I’m there.

        1. GlowBoy

          Yep, sure enough there they are. Tucked right around the corner of the freeway wall, where I couldn’t see them from the station or my approach from the east.

  6. Matty LangMatty Lang

    It seems to me that pressure needs to be applied to Ramsey County Commissioners McDonough and Ortega as well as continuing the pressure on Dakota County to commit to providing operating funding for the Orange Line into the future.

    Living in Saint Paul, I often hear the “what about the east metro?” refrain and it looks like Ramsey County is playing this card again in its opposition to funding the Orange Line through CTIB if Dakota County leaves. This is a short-sighted and parochial move because we need a system built out for the full metro–including the Orange Line–which has Federal funding lined up and ready to go.

    The Riverview Corridor project is behind the Hennepin projects in the funding queue only because Saint Paul couldn’t get its act together decades ago when Riverview could have been the first major line in the region. Even if Dakota County ends up permanently leaving CTIB, the sales tax rate can (and ought to) be raised to generate enough revenue to build the rest of the system.

    Heck, it should be raised significantly either way so we can start building multiple lines at once. Killing off the Orange Line won’t help with the politics of getting that done. It would likely, in fact, embolden opposition to the rest of the lines in the planned system.

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