A layout plan for the long-awaited reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue South in Minneapolis received approval from a city committee on Thursday, but much focus remains on whether or not the future corridor's bus lanes will be dedicated to public transit round-the-clock.
Allan Klungman, an engineer with the city's public works department, said the city plans to collect more data over the next several years before deciding on hours-of-operation for the new bus lanes.
Rather than ensuring full-time bus lanes begin day one, Klungman said the city will plan to initially continue with dynamic bus lanes, which allow cars to park in the lanes during non-peak hours.
The new direction sparked outcry from Our Streets Minneapolis and other grassroots advocacy groups, who claim the new concept marks a last-minute change by Minneapolis Public Works Director Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
Kelliher, a former state representative, joined the city in March after leaving her role as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
During Thursday's committee meeting, she said there's been no changes to the layout plan presented to city officials, and the design remains able to eventually accommodate full-time, dedicated bus lines.
Still, Anderson Kelliher faces criticism from local residents and city officials who argue plans for how the roadway will operate have suddenly changed since the final unveiling in December.
Those advocates say they're frustrated and fear the plans for full-time bus lanes might be crumbling after years of planning.
"The current plan would delay the implementation of 24/7 bus lanes until an unspecified date in the future," Our Streets Minneapolis, a local nonprofit organization, stated. "There is no accountability and no reason to believe that this will happen anytime soon. This is unacceptable."
Hennepin For People held a rally last week after learning of the plans to delay full-time bus lanes and instead continue with dynamic bus lanes.
"The behind-the-scenes removal of full-time bus lanes from the Hennepin plan is motivated by politics – not data, not equity, not concern for the climate, not good stewardship of public resources," the organization wrote.
Klungman argues the city must further study traffic patterns and evaluate how the new road is performing before deciding "the best answer for everyone."
Advocates of full-time bus lanes say the community can't face further delays — the new roadway's opening is already far off with construction scheduled to wrap up in 2025 at the earliest.
Ward 10 Council Member Aisha Chughtai said gathering several additional years of ridership data could push the plans off until 2030 or so.
"Our undocumented communities, our children, our working class residents can't wait that long," she said, describing the full-time bus lanes the "single largest tool for equity" in the reconstruction plan.
The committee's vote
On Thursday, the city's Public Works and Infrastructure committee voted unanimously to recommend approval of the layout plan to the Minneapolis City Council.
In a separate motion, the committee voted 3-2 on a recommendation to direct staff to implement full-time bus lanes as soon as the new roadway opens.
However, the staff direction faces pushback from the city's legal counsel.
According to Jocelyn Bremer of the City Attorney's Office, operational decisions on city roadways fall under the control of public works officials rather than the city council.
"If the city council did not approve of that delegation, the city council would be responsible for every single stop sign, every single lane turn — every single decision that public works staff makes regarding traffic operations on a daily basis," Bremer said during Thursday's meeting.
Kelliher stated she doesn't support the staff direction recommended by the committee, but said it's the public works department's intention "to fully support the E-Line transition to all-day, full-time bus lanes as quickly as possible."
The data-driven approach, she said, will also enable the city to support businesses through the establishment of new parking areas.
Years of planning
In 2018, the city began developing plans to reconstruct Hennepin Avenue South between West Lake Street and Douglas Avenue for the first time since its construction 65 years ago.
The designs moving towards final approval would reduce vehicle traffic to one lane in either direction and add a raised bikeway and separated median to improve safety.
Metro Transit's future Bus Rapid Transit line, known as the E Line, will also run through the 1.4-mile corridor on it's 14-mile path between Edina and Minneapolis.
The number of transit riders on Hennepin Avenue South —currently estimated at 6,600 each day — is expected to more than double once the E-line is added, according to the city.
With $40 million in state dollars invested into the E-Line, the Minneapolis Legislative Delegation is among the voices calling for dedicated bus lanes.
"We urge you to ensure a successful E Line opening, and retain exclusive bus lane dedication as part of the Hennepin redesign project," the delegation wrote in a letter to the council.
The layout plan and staff direction ordering full-time bus lanes are both expected to go before the Minneapolis City Council on Thursday.
After the council vote, a final decision from Mayor Jacob Frey is expected sometime before June 1.
"We've been fighting for more than four years to get a more accessible, equitable, safe and sustainable street," said Katie Jones, co-lead of Hennepin for People, a grassroots neighborhood organization.
In an interview with Bring Me The News on Monday, Jones said a much broader legal question now overhangs the future of the roadway: "Is the city council precluded from weighing-in on operational issues?"
Jones said she doesn't think so — but whether or not the city council can order all-day bus lanes could represent a test case since the city passed the "strong mayor" ballot amendment in November.
"If these decisions are made by the Mayor's Office and the departments themselves, there's a lack of transparency," Jones said. "It's now become kind of a bigger conversation."
BMTN Note: The broader trend of increasingly severe weather and record-breaking extremes seen in Minnesota and across the globe can be attributed directly to the rapidly warming climate caused by human activity. The IPCC has warned that Earth is "firmly on track toward an unlivable world," and says greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030 in order to limit warming to 1.5C, which would prevent the most catastrophic effects on humankind. You can read more here.