The Counties Transit Improvement Board on Wednesday approved $140.9 million in grant funding to build new transit lines, enhance existing projects and operate the regional transit system as part of its annual grant process.
The grants will help carry two light rail lines and two bus rapid transit lines through project development; improve access, safety and efficiency on the existing BRT and rail system; complete initial work on two corridors in Washington County, and operate the current system.
The board, which collects a quarter-cent sales tax in five metro area counties to build transit lines throughout the region, awarded $110 million for capital improvement projects and the other $30.9 million for operating grants for the existing regional system.
“This is another example of us investing in multiple modes of transit across the region to advance a modern transit system,” said CTIB Chair Peter McLaughlin, a Hennepin County commissioner.
The largest portion of the funding — a $63.6 million grant for advanced design — will go toward the Southwest LRT project from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
The funding for Southwest’s advanced design over the next year is part of CTIB’s $496 million commitment to the project. Combined with the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority’s 10 percent share of $165 million and $44 million from the state, 85 percent of the local funding for the project has been identified.
“The commitments show that our local funding partners recognize the project’s strength following resolution of some big issues through the municipal consent process. The actions by the transit board and regional railroad authority are an important seal of approval that the FTA wanted to see,” said Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh in a statement to Finance & Commerce.
Since the board began collecting the sales tax seven years ago, the counties have awarded $648.3 million to transit projects, including the Green Line LRT project, which opened earlier this year.
This year’s grant total is only a fraction of the funds the board has pledged to commit to regional projects in its $1.7 billion, five-year investment plan, known as the Program of Projects. The first phase of board’s accelerated strategy includes Southwest LRT, Bottineau LRT, the Orange Line, Gateway Corridor BRT and St. Paul’s Robert Street Corridor and Riverview Corridor, both under study. The board typically funds 30 percent of the capital costs and 50 percent of the operating costs once a project is complete, but recently it decided to up its share of the costs to build projects at a faster pace.
“We keep pushing,” McLaughlin said. “Our idea is to get this system built out as fast as we can.”
McLaughlin said the board hopes to accelerate projects so that the region will see the benefits sooner and also to build on a positive reputation with the Federal Transit Administration, which has traditionally funded 50 percent of the capital cost for projects.
This year’s grants also represent a “milestone” for Washington County, McLaughlin said.
When Washington County joined the board, it didn’t have any transit projects in the works, so a portion of the sales tax collected in the county was set aside to be used more flexibly. That money has funded planning activities for several corridors. For the first time this year, a Washington County project — the Gateway Corridor BRT line — was awarded a $600,000 capital grant out of the regular fund for projects.
“They did not have a line teed up and ready to go as the other four counties did,” McLaughlin said. “For the first time — they now have a line.”
Securing the first competitive award for Gateway is a significant milestone in what has been a busy year for the corridor, said Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik. Earlier this year, officials approved the locally preferred alternative for the project. The project is set to be adopted into the regional Transportation Policy Plan and is part of a new streamlined federal permitting process.
Washington County will also receive $1.08 million for transit-oriented development planning along Gateway and an implementation plan for the Red Rock Corridor between Hastings and Minneapolis.
As projects in the east metro gain steam, Weik said, regional leaders are recognizing the importance of a balanced system.
“They all really have more value if there are eastern components,” she said. “It will be more valuable if it doesn’t end at Union Depot.”
The remaining capital grants include:
- $15.9 million for project development and environmental review for the Bottineau LRT line from Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park.
- $3 million for project development and environmental review on the Orange Line, a BRT project along Interstate 35W between Minneapolis and Burnsville.
- $6 million for five additional light rail vehicles for the Blue Line, the region’s first LRT line between Minneapolis and the Mall of America in Bloomington.
- $9.7 million to construct a new online station at Cedar Grove for the Red Line BRT between the Mall of America and Apple Valley.
- $10.2 million to construct a grade separation between commuter and freight rail and vehicle traffic at Armstrong Boulveard on the Northstar Commuter Rail line.