Trojan Transitway?

THE BATTLE OVER expanding Hiawatha Avenue has been raging in South Minneapolis for a few years now, with environmentalists protesting the Minnesota Department of Transportation's plan to run a four-lane highway alongside the "urban wilderness" of Minnehaha Park. There are homeowners in the area who weren't even born when the whole thing started, and thus far, the official response has been that this late in the process, it's too late to change the project.

But as it turns out, the engineers are quite capable of contemplating drastic revisions--or at least additions. With little fanfare and great speed, MNDoT and other government agencies have been drawing up plans for an express-bus "transitway" that would run next to the new Hiawatha and cost upwards of $20 million. It's a dream come true for Minneapolis pols and downtown business groups, who have long demanded a fast, straight link to the airport. Lost in the shuffle may be city bus passengers--far less attractive a clientele than the suburban commuters, tourists, and business travelers the new project is designed to attract.

According to Minneapolis transportation systems engineer Bob Morgan, the expressway would be 26 feet wide and feature railroad-crossing-style gates so buses could zip from downtown Minneapolis to the airport in just 20 minutes. The buses would stop at jazzed-up shelters, possibly equipped with heat, lights, and alarms, and perhaps located in yet-to-be-built community facilities or daycare centers. When the the Hiawatha route is finished, plans call for an expressway to St. Paul, and a smaller one to the Northtown Shopping Center in Coon Rapids, possibly to secure the support of north-metro pols.

Not everyone is enchanted by the prospect, though. "To me, it looks like spin control," says Josh Davis, who covered the Hiawatha controversy for the neighborhood press and has since joined an anti-expansion group. "I think the proposal is to distract people's attention away from the environmental implications of the [highway] project. People like transit, they think it's good for the environment and good for our responsible-development obligations. But the truth is, it's still two additional lanes of concrete." Davis notes that MNDoT just got done rebuilding the intersection of Lake Street and Hiawatha with an overpass that cuts the Phillips neighborhood off from the area's main shopping center. The transitway would add another bridge right after that overpass, making what used to be a navigable intersection into a concrete spaghetti bowl.

And then there are those who suspect the transitway is the latest Trojan horse for light-rail transit. After spending more than 20 years and untold millions studying light rail, planners two years ago were forced to admit that "federal funding realities"--the Republican congressional majority--make subsidies for such a project unlikely.

Yet all the proposed expressway segments run along what were once projected to be light-rail routes, and specifications are being drawn up so roads and bridges could support trains. What's more, the Metropolitan Light Rail Transit Joint Powers Board has put in an application for $187 million in federal funds for construction of an LRT line along the corridor. "[The transitways] are like a transition project," acknowledges MNDoT engineer Ron Erickson. "In the construction process, we're trying to keep in mind that maybe we'll switch this to light rail at some point in the future."

Which may not be such a bad idea--except that the urban bus system is falling apart and new projects frequently drain resources from existing service. Already, transit watchers note that the bus administration has spent money on suburban hubs and commuter routes, while slashing neighborhood routes and raising fares. Critics of the Hiawatha project point to a Minneapolis planning document that suggested reconfiguring local bus routes for better connections to the expressway--in the process making it harder for neighborhood travelers to use buses.

Proponents say a transitway will enhance, not drain, neighborhood service. But even if that happens, the project suggests a shift in priorities. At $32 million, its most expensive variation would come to about one-third of the current budget for the entire bus system. And politicians acknowledge that this kind of project will be where the funding action is in the future: "We've found that by just focusing on the core city we've been unable to get support from our suburban colleagues," says state Sen. Carol Flynn (DFL-Mpls.), one of the architects of a transit-funding reform bill at the Legislature. "If we want them to help pay for [buses], we need to offer them something."

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