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Region making 'major strides' toward improved transit system

The Twin Cities metro area is making "major strides" toward improving the region's transit system and building upon the impressive ridership growth achieved in 2007, Metropolitan Council Chair Peter Bell said Monday.

In his annual State of the Region speech at the Minneapolis Central Library, Bell reported that Metro Transit ridership surged to 77 million in 2007, an increase of nearly 5 percent over 2006 and the largest total since 1982.

Bell said the council's vision for transit calls for improving the existing bus system and developing a network of bus and transit "transitways," with a goal of doubling transit ridership by 2030. Last year, he said, the Council and its transportation partners made significant progress toward achieving this vision by:

• Securing federal funding to begin construction of the region's first commuter rail line in the 40-mile Northstar Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake.

• Winning a $133 million federal grant to accelerate the development of bus rapid transit (BRT) and ease traffic congestion in two busy transportation corridors -- I-35W south of downtown Minneapolis and Cedar Avenue in Dakota County.

• Moving forward with preliminary engineering on the proposed light-rail transit (LRT) line in the Central Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.

Bell said the Central Corridor LRT project remains his "No. 1 priority." But he also reiterated that the Council will have to reduce its cost from the present $990 million to around $840 million if the project is to meet federal cost-effectiveness requirements and win federal matching funds essential for its construction.

"I would caution our project partners and community advocates not to draw lines in the sand," Bell said. "Compromises will need to be made, just as they were made on the Hiawatha and Northstar lines... If they demand all of the 'bells and whistles,' there may be no train."

Bell said 2007 marked the 40th anniversary of the Council's creation by the Legislature, but that it was "far more than a year of introspection." He said other important milestones included:

• Gaining legislative approval to establish a Regional Parks Foundation to solicit funding from private sources to accelerate parkland acquisition and "preserve our region's last, best natural areas while this land is still available and affordable."

• Taking the delivery of the first of 169 hybrid electric buses that Metro Transit will purchase over the next five years and making the switch from a 5-percent biodiesel fuel to a 10-percent blend.

• Partnering with the University of Minnesota to pursue new ideas for renewable fuels and energy conservation, including a promising idea for growing high-oil content algae in treated wastewater and using it to produce bio-fuels.

• Working with 46 metro-area communities to reduce the amount of storm and ground water that is entering the region's wastewater treatment system, consuming capacity needed to serve future development.

• Providing $1 million in planning assistance grants to 46 communities and three counties to assist them in developing their local comprehensive plans, due at the end of 2008.

In his speech, Bell paid tribute to some of the council's exemplary employees as well as the "hundreds of police officers, fire fighters, medical personnel and civilians who responded to the tragic collapse of the I-35W bridge last August... Their rapid, coordinated efforts undoubtedly helped to save lives that otherwise would have been lost."

"There is nothing we can do to restore the 13 lives that were lost in the bridge collapse," he said. "However, I sincerely hope this tragedy will provide added impetus to achieving the passage this legislative session of a balanced transportation funding bill -- one that addresses the critical highway, bridge and transit needs of our state and region."

The Metropolitan Council is the regional planning organization for the seven-county Twin Cities area. It runs the regional bus and light-rail system, collects and treats wastewater, coordinates regional water resources, plans regional parks and administers funds that provide housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income individuals and families. The council is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the governor.