Hennepin County Endangers Transit Funding

In a shocking 4-3 decision, the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (which is to say the Hennepin County commissioners) voted last month to divert transit sales tax revenues to roads. At a time when transit funding is facing a crisis in the state legislature due to Republican opposition, it’s hard to imagine a more cynical move.

This happened because the Blue Line Bottineau Corridor from Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park is stalled.

Bottineau Copy

BNSF Railroad doesn’t want to share its right of way through Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park, and that is unlikely to change soon.

Meanwhile, the tax revenues are accumulating. According to supporters of the funding diversion, there are no other transit projects in the county’s capital plan. We should demand to know why. Rather than embrace other good transit projects, a majority of the county board sees a slush fund that could be raided to pay for road projects.

This sets a terrible precedent. Thanks to the legislature’s balkanizing of transit funding, the counties are now a major piece of the funding puzzle. The absence of alternate projects in the county plan means only that the county hasn’t worked with Metro Transit to develop a prioritized list.

Here are some of the worthy projects, in no particular order of priority, from the long list.

The Midtown Greenway rail line

Midtownserviceplan Draft

In my opinion, this is the single best transit project in the metro area. Connecting the Green Line on the west with the Blue Line on the east promises a healthy ridership increase. It will spur considerable redevelopment, including density increases that support the Minneapolis 2040 plan. Cutting travel time from Uptown to Hiawatha from 30 minutes to 10 minutes will dramatically improve transportation and, therefore, the quality of life for the low-income, transit-dependent heart of south Minneapolis. As a byproduct, it will improve security for Midtown Greenway bikers and pedestrians.

The D Line

00 05 87972 19 D Line Map 1

The bus rapid transit (BRT) replacement for Route 5, the busiest bus route in the system, has been delayed due to lack of funding. It will bring faster service to Bloomington, Richfield and Brooklyn Center in addition to Minneapolis. The neighboring C Line in north Minneapolis is experiencing a 30 percent ridership increase. We can expect the same from the D Line.

The E Line

E Line Map808

This is the BRT replacement for Route 6 serving Minneapolis and Edina. Based on the success of the A Line and the C Line arterial BRTs, the E Line should produce a similar ridership increase at a time when conventional bus routes — slower, less frequent — are losing ridership.

Implement the Service Improvement Plan

Back in 2012, Metro Transit and the Metropolitan Council approved the Regional Service Improvement Plan, which is currently being refreshed as Network Next. It has received little attention, but it’s an extensive list of unglamorous improvements to the regular bus system. In addition to some route extensions, Network Next calls for more frequent service on most routes. Included are the bus feeders to the Green Line Southwest Corridor.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Transit in the Twin Cities has been perpetually starved for funding, and yet the county is considering putting it on a diet. How short-sighted.

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.

31 thoughts on “Hennepin County Endangers Transit Funding

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    My guess is that a large chunk of the Hennepin County board do not care much at all about investing in efficient, effective transit in the City of Minneapolis. I would bet they only want to direct money to their parts of the county, in a bit of old-school parochial gamesmanship. And because it’s easier to drive an SUV through the eye of the needle than to build any kind of functioning transit in Maple Grove, we have this terrible political result to deal with.

  2. Aaron IsaacsAaron

    The D Line, E Line and the Service Improvement Plan all include considerable suburban service within Hennepin County.

  3. Matt SteeleMatt

    While I am deeply concerned that four Hennepin County Commissioners want to divert a transit-dedicated funding source to roads and bridges (particularly Fernando and Opat who serve significant urban populations), I am also concerned by the lack of an alternative amendment to allow this money to be spent.

    Here’s a link to the Board’s existing and adopted Sales and Use Tax Implementation Plan. It’s a quick read: https://www.hennepin.us/-/media/hennepinus/residents/transportation/documents/sales-use-transportation-tax-plan-2017.pdf

    As is plain on page 6, the current plan only allows for funding of construction and operations of Green Line, Blue Line, Riverview, and Orange Line Freeway BRT. The last item allows for spending on basically anything transportation – yikes like stroads in Dayton or Medina – after a public hearing and a Board vote.

    So why didn’t one of the three commissioners who voted against Callison’s amendment create an alternative amendment? One that would actually allow this funding to be spent on additional transit projects beyond those in the Implementation Plan? For example, set aside a certain amount each year for construction of Arterial BRT in the county. Or ask Metro Transit to submit their ideas (a transit CIP if you will) for Hennepin County. There’s lots of ways this money could have been spent on transit, but from my reading that would have required Greene, Conley, or Goettel to propose an alternative amendment. And that would have forced Fernando’s cards – a clear vote for transit or a vote against transit.

    But that’s all behind us now – and this money could still be spent on transit if there are four votes on the board for better transit. I have no doubt my commissioner, Conley, supports better transit such as Arterial BRT (fund all the lines, then extend the C Line down Cedar for example). It could also be spent on safe streets to save lives. Or it could be spent on more sprawl-inducing car sewer expansions in corn fields. The future is up to us to create, and it will take some organizing and holding at least four commissioners accountable for the future we expect to see.

    1. UrbanDelite

      Matt, I agree with you that we need to better organize. Please pardon my ignorance, but which transit oriented groups have their finger on the pulse of issues such as this? I need to join the cause.

    2. Monte Castleman

      It’s probably more likely Hennepin County would use the money to reconstruct portions of Penn, Portland, and Nicollet in the south suburbs to include three lane conversions one some of the parts that have not yet been restriped on an interim basis as well as improved bicycle / ped facilities along those routes as opposed to “stroads in Dayton and Medina”, possibly some more flashing yellow arrow projects that eliminate the green ball vs ped phase conflict. These close-in reconstruction projects are specifically identified as not funded but something the county would like to do if they can find funding.

  4. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs Post author

    The local Sierra Club chapter lobbied against the decision. We need to apply pressure from all quarters to get it reversed. I’m hoping Streets.mn readers will make their voices heard.

  5. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    I found Fernando’s vote and her explanation for that vote completely baffling. I hope that residents in her district will give her hell for it, and persuade her to change her mind. As Aaron writes here, there is no lack of worthy transit projects in need of funding if Hennepin County would acknowledge them.

    I also want to point out that the fiasco with the Blue Line extension is an extraordinary failure. The primary basis for the alignment of the Blue Line was to avoid political problems, such as eminent domain in North Minneapolis and repurposing of lanes on Bottineau Boulevard. The result was an alignment that does a poor job of serving these areas, but theoretically was easier to be built.

    The fact that it has not been easier to build (an experience shared with SWLRT), should show once again the folly of allowing the LPA process to be so thoroughly driven by politics. The result is never an elimination of political obstacles, but merely the replacement of one set with another, while the alignment that would serve (and also impact) the most people is usually sandbagged.

    If the Blue Line eventually has to go to the back of the New Starts queue, it would at least provide an opportunity to reroute the train. That need not mean destroying a hundred homes on Penn, but it could mean closing Lyndale N to cars and then running along Broadway, or it could mean a tunnel. There are plenty of options once we stop trying to anticipate political issues years in advance, and simply put out the best possible plan and deal with the political issues as they actually arise.

    1. Andrew Evans

      The best possible plan in North is streetcars or more bus service. For the price paid, the community wouldn’t get a lot out of the 2 or 3 light rail stops. This is why it was a hard sell going through north. Similar to why the south west light rail doesn’t go through uptown, the 1 or 2 stops between the lakes, lake street, and downtown weren’t worth it.

        1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

          I don’t understand an argument that the Northside would be better off with four peripheral LRT stations rather than three stations right where people live and work.

        2. Andrew Evans


          That was part of the reason light rail didn’t go through north, the few stops wouldn’t really serve the community and residents then didn’t want to trade the traffic nightmare to make it easier for suburban folks to commute to downtown. It wasn’t a service to the community.

          That’s also part of the reason southwest didn’t go through uptown. The few stops wouldn’t really serve the greater community.

          1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

            Are you arguing that three LRT stops in North Minneapolis where people actually live and work would be worse than four LRT stops on the periphery of North Minneapolis where nobody goes?

            Obviously high frequency, high capacity transit right in the middle of the Northside would serve the community, I have a really hard time understanding the mental contortions needed to come to a different conclusion.

          2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            I was elsewhere during the debate, but my understanding was that the reasons that the Green Line didn’t go through Uptown were pretty much entirely costs, not concerns that stops don’t serve local communities. Of course they do.

            Same for Bottineau, with the added concern about space in the right of way and the potential need for takings to make it work.

  6. John Dillery

    I wish that our metro counties were legally structured to raise sales tax money for TRANSIT, not only “transit projects”. Imagine if each metro county levied a 1-cent sales tax and half of this amount was dedicated to simply supporting transit operating subsidies and half would be dedicated to building transit projects. No more excess money, supposedly, we don’t know what to do with and better yet, no more drastic operating subsidy shortfalls causing drastic cuts to the transit service that most metro area residents ride and will care about. Many other metro areas in the USA fund their transit this way, so I am not proposing a new concept.

    1. Andrew Evans

      Imagine if residents were able to keep their money and not have to pay an additional 1-cent sales tax?

      1. GlowBoy

        So no county funding for transit? That sounds like a terrible idea. Can I withhold the enormous amount of my taxes that go to build and expand freeways I don’t use?

  7. Jerome Johnson

    Here’s an approach that deals with two of the issues at hand: What to do with the $10 to $25 million per year of tax proceeds and how to jump start the Bottineau LRT project.

    The problem with Bottineau is that the freight railroad has no appetite for co-locating with light rail transit. Since that results in sub-optimal operating conditions for both entities, how can you blame the freight railroad? So, to avoid co-location and thus take away any objections the freight railroad might have, recognize that all the active freight shippers on the Bottineau line exist west of the point in Brooklyn Park where the Bottineau LRT departs the railroad right-of-way and heads north on Broadway towards the Target complex near Hwy 610. Then, connect the western end of the current freight spur located near the Monticello nuke plant with the main line of the freight railroad just five miles across the Mississippi River at Becker and serve those remaining freight shippers in Osseo, Dayton and Rogers from the Becker area rather than from Minneapolis, as it does today. This allows the railroad to abandon the line from Brooklyn Park back through Robbinsdale and into Minneapolis, providing for an unimpaired LRT right of way. That, in turn, unleashes the huge development potential of the Bottineau LRT concept.

    The hitch, of course, is funding the requisite rail bridge across the Mississippi between the Xcel nuke plant and the BNSF main line in Becker. That is where the extra $million in tax proceeds comes in. Say $20 million is available for five years. That alone would fund most, if not all, the cost to build the new freight rail bridge. Add to that bridge a two lane freeway connector between nearby I-94 and Hwy 10 to alleviate the crushing traffic delays on the nearby Hwy 24 bridge at Clearwater and chances are good MNDoT would pony up much of the balance.

    Cannot help but be surprised that Rail Authority operatives don’t pursue something like this. One would think they would think bigger than they do. Yes, they can cite the huge lead times for the requisite enviro statements and so forth, but it may take that long anyway for the freight railroad to come around on that suboptimal co-location scheme through Robbinsdale. And for those concerned about the long run and envisioning Robbinsdale as the next 50th and France, why would they want that freight track running through the middle of town anyway? It will be little more than an attractive nuisance.

    So, collaborate with MNDoT to spend the money to serve freight rail from the west and get Bottineau rolling. It is the best and fastest way to create the sort of urban transit and trail utopia that will make Minneapolis the next Copenhagen .

    1. Monte Castleman

      This all is assuming that the railroad has legitimate operational or liability concerns about co-location, and isn’t instead smelling blood in the water and seeing a chance to derail a major Hennepin County project as vengeance for the county derailing one of their major projects.

      Also, MnDOT has already completed the environmental studies and selected a location for the new river crossing closer to the existing one at Clearwater and I doubt co-locating a highway and rail bridge would be that much cheaper.

      1. Paul Johnson

        Who do you think pays for the roads that the buses travel on. If they aren’t properly maintained the buses would have difficulty in completing their routes.

      2. Andrew Evans

        Monte, they don’t call it “railroaded” for nothing…

        I’d add “doesn’t care” to your smelling blood and seeing a chance.

      3. Andrew Evans


        On a side note, wasn’t the hw15 bridge in St. Cloud meant to take traffic from 94 to 10? I wonder how much of it is habit vs really saving time now days, assuming the goal of quite a few of these people is to go north up to Little Falls.

  8. Monte Castleman

    Yes / No / Maybe / I Don’t Know / Sort of.

    The 15 bridge project has been around since the 1970s, and was originally planned as a full freeway with right of way acquired. As a full freeway it would be more attractive to shuttling traffic, but back then it wasn’t nearly the pain to transfer at MN 24 or even just stay on 10 all the way back to the cities. I think always the main intent was to serve St Cloud and to link it to I-94, which was moved at the last minute to be a long ways away from the city instead of right at what was then the developed edge.

    At any rate, St. Cloud eventually demanded that the ROW for interchanges be sold and the money be used for building the road to expressway standards. It’s possible St. Cloud wanted the tax revenue but it’s also possible they realized that was the only way any semblance of a road would be built. You can still see odd shaped lots on GIS where the interchanges would have gone. MnDOT initially tried to promote it as a way to get between 10 and 94 (There’s a southbound “To 94 Follow 15” sign but realized soon that wasn’t going too happen so continued with planning for a new 24 freeway. During planning St. Cloud wanted MnDOT to build the new crossing as an extention of 23rd Street, but not surprisingly that alternative was not selected.

    Meanwhile now St. Cloud is realizing a freeway should have been built on 15. Now it will be even more expensive due to extensive bridging needed to fit into the narrowed ROW, and there’s of course no money to pay for it aside of popup projects here and there.

  9. Robert


    Roads are better than rail.

    Roads are an open system: A road can carry pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses, hybrids, etc. Those vehicles can be powered by gas, diesel, electric, ethanol, hydrogen, etc. The infrastructure cost and maintenance is much less than rail. Putting billions into a rigid system for decades is madness when self driving cars are just around the corner.

    For mass transit, buses are superior to rail in every way except in creating more government and union jobs.

    Rail is a historical anomaly. If the internal combustion engine had been invented first, we wouldn’t even have trains.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      Self driving cars are decades away. Likely never in urban neighborhoods in snow climates.

      Roads filled with 80% empty vehicles that occupy as much as half the space as as city bus can never move as much people as mass transit.

      The space required to store private vehicles is not actually free.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I don’t think that it’s true that maintenance costs – including plowing, restriping and resurfacing – are lower for roads than rail. Cheaper on the initial build, but way more needed maintenance.

      Rail is how actual cities deal with commuters and how much of the world handles inter-city travel. It can handle much higher capacity with much lower marginal costs and at much faster speeds. It was a historic mistake when America decided that every travel need was best met by a single transportation mode. It’s a shame we still haven’t woken up from that fallacy yet.

      And we should compound the mistake with false faith in self driving cars, which are still a long way off.

    3. GlowBoy

      Do you actually ride trains and buses with any regularity? I think anyone who actually uses transit would say trains are a lot nicer and more reliable to use and ride, when you have a corridor that could support either one.

      Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about spending money effectively. I still think rail was the wrong decision for Riverview, where line 54 already delivers pretty good, fast service. BRT would have been a better choice there, and cost 1/10 as much. As a regular rider along W 7th I’m not excited that the new rail connection will be slower.

      But to say that buses are superior in every way except pork is simply false.

      In other parts of the world where people use transit more, there are a few regions where rail might indeed be a historical anomaly (much of Central and South America come to mind), but I don’t think the Japanese or the Europeans would agree.

  10. Brian

    Why can’t the county just save the money until there is a transit project to spend the money on? Is there a time limit on spending the money, or do the commissioners just see a bunch of money that can be used to make car owning voters happy without raising taxes?

    Where is Metro Transit going to get the capital and operating budget to buy and operate more buses? How much will they need to raise driver pay to attract more drivers? The state legislature seems unlikely to allocate more transit funding.

    I don’t know why anyone with ANY other choice rides the 5 bus. A bicyclist could go as fast as the 5 bus on Chicago. I gave up on ever taking the 5 bus again after bad experiences including a day the bus was so full the driver had to leave passengers waiting due to no more room on the bus. I had to step off the bus at every stop to let other passengers off. I got so sick of getting on and off that I walked the last 1/2 mile. I switched my health care from a clinic next to Abbott Northwesten to Hennepin Healthcare downtown just to avoid the 5 bus.

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