A link to Lake Street

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September 12, 2011
By: Aaron Rupar
Aaron Rupar
Plan for new I-35W transit station coming into sharper focus

Slowly but steadily, the details of a proposed transit station on Interstate 35W at Lake Street are emerging.

After half a year of discussion, Project Advisory Committee (PAC) members and engineering consultants said they hope to make a final decision on a site for the $50–$80 million station at the next PAC meeting on Sept. 22. Based on discussions at the PAC’s August meeting, it appears a highway-level station above Lake with vertical access points on both sides of the street has strong support.

The PAC, which has met monthly since February, is composed of neighborhood, business, city and county representatives. Thus far, discussions have focused on determining the optimal location for the transit station relative to Lake Street and the Midtown Greenway, which runs parallel to Lake Street one block north.

The transit station — which would link future Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on I-35W to street-level bus routes and connect with bicycle and pedestrian traffic in the Midtown Greenway — is the centerpiece of the broader I-35W Transit/Access Project.

Other project components include the reconstruction of I-35W from roughly 32nd Street to Downtown, including bridge replacements, a northbound highway entrance from Lake Street, and a highway exit from northbound I-35W to 28th Street.

Individual project components likely will be built as funding becomes available, and some may not be built at all.

Hennepin County Engineer Jim Grube said conversations about highway reconfiguration, bridge replacements and new on- and off-ramps will begin “in greater detail once we know where the transit station lands.”

Mike Kotila, project manager for Short Elliot Hendrickson (SEH), the engineering firm doing preliminary design work on the project, characterized the location of the transit station as the “central lynchpin of the whole project design.”

The PAC and project engineers received public feedback on the three leading contenders for a transit station site at an Aug. 17 open house. One put the station on I-35W above the Greenway, another had it above Lake Street and the third placed it between the two.

After weighing the pros and cons of each possible site and processing public feedback, discussion at the PAC’s August indicated that Lake Street is the preferred option.

Lyndale Neighborhood Association Executive Director Mark Hinds, who represents Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman on the PAC, said, “My sense is that opinion is coalescing around Lake Street as the place that makes the most sense for a whole bunch of reasons.”

A Lake Street site would distance the station from the Greenway, but it would best facilitate quick transfers from street-level buses to the BRT platform and vice-versa. To make the station easily accessible for bicyclists, a landscaped ramp would conveniently allow Greenway users to ride to the station.

However, Hinds said that reaching consensus on issues such as locating vertical access points to the BRT platform and deciding how wide Lake Street should be underneath the station will probably prove more difficult.

City Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) said policy makers from the city, county, state and Metropolitan Council soon would be meeting to discuss the PAC’s progress.

Lilligren said he wanted to ensure the Lake Street station didn’t repeat the mistakes of the Lake & Hiawatha light rail station, which integrated multiple modes of transportation at the cost of easy navigation for drivers. It also created a concrete-intensive, forlorn pedestrian environment along Lake Street under the train platform.

Officials from neighborhoods near the future Lake Street transit station, such as Whittier and Phillips West, said they wanted to ensure local interests weren’t sacrificed for the convenience of commuters as the PAC moved onto elements of the project beyond the transit station.

Erica Christ, chair of the Whittier Alliance neighborhood board, said she would prefer to see a transit station built in between the Greenway and Lake Street.

“My big concern is that the neighborhood interests be served to the extent they can be by having a very transit- and pedestrian-friendly project, not a car- and commuter-driven one,” she said.

Christ also expressed concern about over-building. She pointed out that very few people use the existing bus stop above Lake along I-35W.

“The use [of that bus stop] is still pretty minimal, so our general feeling is not to go overboard with a big ol’ transit station,” she said. “We’d rather focus the effort on the connection between Lake Street, the Greenway and Nicollet.”

Hinds, however, said he believes a BRT connection between downtown and the southern suburbs would be great not just for suburbanites, but also for folks living in Lyndale and other urban neighborhoods.

“What BRT has the possibility to do is not only open up jobs downtown for folks coming in but also jobs where people can reverse commute down to Richfield or Bloomington,” he said. “That could be a very powerful thing.”

At the Aug. 26 Whittier Alliance meeting, board members directed staff to spend $500 for an engineer to develop drawings of the type of Lake Street transit station the neighborhood would like to see. Christ said she expects the Whittier Alliance will hold a special meeting to make a recommendation regarding the transit station, though a date for that meeting had not been set as of press time.

But even as the planning process proceeds, it’s unclear whether funds will be available for any of the I-35W Transit/Access Project components once the PAC develops preliminary plans for all aspects of the project — a process that could take up to two more years.

Said Christ: “The big thing we’re hearing from policymakers is the money part is very uncertain. Sometimes the way it’s characterized is that they’re going to look at each component and how much money is available, but sometimes we hear something closer to, ‘There is virtually no money for it.’”

Lilligren, who also sits on the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Advisory Board, said he expected up to 80 percent of project funding to come from the federal government.