Aaron Stephenson recalled more bad experiences than good with Metro Transit’s Route 6 since he rode the wood-paneled buses as a child using it to get to school, and eventually, to work.
“Hennepin is always so choked with cars,” said Stephenson as he listed some of his frustrations over Twitter private message. Among them, “Being late to work when I was working breakfast at Lucia’s, or just generally trying to make [it to] things downtown, but sitting in car traffic on Hennepin for infuriating amounts of time.”
Stephenson, who is Black, is among those who support full-time transit-only lanes on Hennepin Ave. between Douglas Ave. and Lake St. in Uptown.
But the transit lanes are imperiled after the Minneapolis City Council failed to override Mayor Jacob Frey’s June 17 veto on June 30, citing business concerns.
For years, the city of Minneapolis, Metro Transit, Uptown-area residents, transit riders, and activists desired faster transit on congestion-prone Hennepin Ave. Activists cited climate change, racial justice, and the desire to make streets safe, as three of the biggest factors.
“Adding in bike facilities … dedicated transit, making it easier for people to walk in reducing the amount of severe or fatal crashes that happen on a street … are proven to be good for business,” said Councilmember Aisha Chugtai, who represents the eastern half of Hennepin. “This isn’t actually a debate about climate versus business. It’s a debate about how do we best build for the future that we know is coming for the most marginalized people and for the health of an entire corridor.”
Researchers say transportation is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, itself a contributor to climate change, and the city plans to slow it down by incentivizing other ways to get around. Hennepin Ave. also happens to be due for a rebuild—its last rebuild was 60 years ago.
So they worked with Metro Transit to implement part-time bus lanes on Hennepin Ave. in 2018 and 2019. Metro Transit was also already working to implement the E Line, a rapid bus route similar to the A and C Lines that only stops at specially-designed stations along the way and will replace Route 6D when it opens in 2025. They believed lanes just for buses would make it go faster, which would mean more people would ride it instead of driving.
“As a parent, it’s really important to me that we try to do everything we can to combat climate change, and make sure that my kid and their generation have a planet left to live on,” said Hennepin Ave. resident Jason Garcia, who supports the transit lanes.
This also makes sense from a racial justice standpoint, activists say, because those who ride—who are mostly people of color—do so because they have no other way of getting around. In fact, 46% of Route 6 riders are people of color—five-eighths of the 46% are Black—according to data collected by the Metropolitan Council in late 2021 as part of their ongoing travel behavior inventory. The survey seeks to understand how people in the Twin Cities are using the region’s transit system.
The red bus lanes, which buses operate on between 25th Street and Franklin Avenue in the morning heading towards downtown, and between 25th Street and Uptown Transit Station in the afternoon coming from downtown, were a hit, not only because they made the buses run up to 24% faster, but also because they continued to function as parking for businesses when they needed it the most.
“I used to open at 9:30, but it makes no sense to open when you can’t park in front of my store [from 7 am to 9 am],” said Fit 1st Running owner Manny Minter of the transit lanes. “[The current arrangement] works perfect for me because I don’t open up till 11 am.”
It’s what the city tried to do after the pilot that makes Minter feel uneasy. Given how popular and effective the transit lanes were, the city decided to dedicate two lanes on Hennepin solely to transit. The city also plans to widen sidewalks and create a two-way bike lane.
The plan means Minter would lose all of his parking currently outside his business, which he believes are crucial for the 60% of his clientele who he said comes from as far as North Dakota and Wisconsin. “[They’ve] specifically come to seek me out because of how we fit shoes. Their podiatrist or their chiropractor, their cousin or someone told them about us,” said Minter. “They’re not really walkers or bikers.”
The city pledges to form a task force to manage parking availability along where Hennepin is being rebuilt.
Nonetheless, Minter supports some aspects of the plan, such as left-turn-only lanes and medians, which the city hopes will slow traffic down and reduce the number of crashes, particularly at 24th, 25th, and the block in between.
The block had about one crash about every six weeks between 2016 and March 2019, whereas both intersections combined had about one crash every three weeks between 2013 and March 2019. “A turning lane, with a turning light designed for each way, that right there, I think it’d be a great project,” said Minter.
The plan, backed by advocates and every Minneapolis-based Minnesota State House member, was approved by the Minneapolis City Council on June 16, with Councilmembers Lisa Goodman, Emily Koski, Latrisha Vetaw, Michael Rainville and Linea Palmisano opposing.
However, it was vetoed by Mayor Jacob Frey on June 17 because of the impacts it would have on BIPOC businesses. “I cannot support keeping bus-only lanes 24 hours a day when buses do not run 24 hours a day. This would ignore the countless small businesses, many of them BIPOC-owned, who compromised both for the presence of a protected bike lane and prioritized bus lanes at the expense of a substantial amount of parking,” said Frey in a letter issuing the veto.
The city council failed to override his veto on June 30. Consequently, the city council referred the project back to the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, where they will re-negotiate the street layout on July 14.
The Metropolitan Council, which distributes federal funds for transportation projects like this, said building part-time transit lanes would not endanger $7 million in federal funds for the project.
Regardless of whether or not the city will include full-time transit lanes on the final layout, Metro Transit’s E Line plan will move forward after the Met Council voted to advance its station locations on June 22.
Learn more about the Hennepin reconstruction project by visiting www.minneapolismn.gov/government/projects/hennepin-ave-s.
Learn more about Metro Transit’s E Line project by visiting www.metrotransit.org/e-line-project.
Henry Pan is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.