The City Council took a major step toward making a Downtown "circulator bus"
system a reality when it agreed Oct. 25 to order eight low-emission shuttle buses.
The new system would operate with three specially designed diesel-electric hybrid buses and five others that have been
modified to use ultra-low-sulfur fuel.
The low-emission buses would run daily along the Nicollet Mall, from a turnaround at Washington Avenue and 3rd Avenue South to the Convention Center.
Councilmember Sandra Colvin Roy, chair of the council's Transportation and Public Works committee, said adding a Hennepin Avenue loop to the circulator system on evenings and weekends also is a goal.
The program is designed so that buses would always arrive at the rail stop at South 5th Street and the Nicollet Mall in time to meet incoming rail cars. It is expected to launch in late 2003, six months before the light-rail transit lines begin carrying passengers in April 2004, she said.
The Metropolitan Council would operate the buses as part of its Metro Transit fleet, Colvin Roy said.
The council's 13-0 vote modifies a 1999 agreement with the Met Council, increasing the city's share of the buses' price tag to $2.9 million. The 1999 agreement called for $2.4 million in city funding.
The Met Council's share of matching funds for the bus purchases will rise to $725,000, up from $600,000 in the '99 agreement.
The city's share will be reimbursed through an $8 million Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant. The agency in 1992 awarded Minneapolis funds to buy alternative-fuel buses for a proposed Nicollet Mall shuttle program, which ultimately failed.
Greg Finstad, the city's director of transportation and parking services, acknowledged that the shuttle buses are being purchased before there is any plan in place to fund the system's operation.
"We haven't got that completely figured out yet," he said. "We have yet to come forward to the council with the operating costs. That's a work in progress."
Finstad said the city is working with Hennepin County's Downtown business community to procure funds. And Colvin Roy said much of the money would likely come from revenue collected at the state-owned 3rd Avenue "distributor" parking ramps.
Colvin Roy said anyone concerned about the city purchasing the eight shuttle buses can be assured that the money won't be wasted.
"These are buses that Metro Transit would need anyway and could end up purchasing to run in their fleet," she said. "There is a local use for those buses."
Mayor R.T. Rybak was unbridled in his enthusiasm for the bus purchase, saying he plans to push for conversion of the entire Metro Transit bus fleet to environment-friendly vehicles.
"It's a big vision that's going to take us a while, but this is a big step in the right direction," he said.
The circulator bus plan is a variation on the original Nicollet Mall Shuttle concept, which withered in the late 1990s despite the $12 million construction of a special transit hub, built specifically for the system at the old Leamington Hotel site.
That plan died after the city sought to pass its $3 million annual operating costs onto the Metropolitan Council, which balked.