Bottineau Light Rail: What Now?

August 31, 2020

Blue Line Light Rail in Minneapolis

The Bottineau Line, as we once knew it, is dead. Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Council scuttled the light rail project in its current alignment because they and BNSF, the freight railroad company, could not agree about how to share an eight-mile length of train track that BNSF owned. Although watching a transit project unravel is never a happy event, moving on from the years-long route stalemate presents an exciting and important opportunity to find a new Bottineau route that better serves communities. And, fortunately, Metropolitan Council leadership has shown every indication of re-planning the route rather than abandoning the concept altogether.

A quick background: The Bottineau Line is a proposed extension of the METRO Blue Line. Bottineau was planned to expand light rail service between Minneapolis and the northern suburbs, terminating in Brooklyn Park. It had the support of many across the region, from elected officials to community advocates. The project was often lauded as a transit investment for under-served communities, including the plurality Black communities in North Minneapolis.

The Bottineau Line—also referred to as the Blue Line Extension—skirted some of the communities it supposedly served, however. The two stations in North Minneapolis—Penn Ave and Van White Blvd—were planned for the middle of a highway (not exactly a model of on-foot accessibility) and the remaining Minneapolis-ish stations skirted the edge of the city and primarily served the undeveloped (and undevelopable) Theodore Wirth Park.

Imperfect though it was, it took years to get Bottineau this far. And now here we are, a line with no route. Which begs the question, how should a new route be determined? We believe decision-makers and advocates should start here:

  • Listen to local transit riders. The route should be heavily influenced by potential future users of the line—the transit riders of North Minneapolis, Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal, and Brooklyn Park should be consulted throughout the process and through a variety of channels.
  • Center racial justice in planning conversations. There are far too many examples of bad transportation projects that have done lasting harm in communities of color. A major new transit line like Bottineau has the potential to create a more equitable region where people of every race are valued and thriving—but only if everyone involved keeps that goal and that responsibility top of mind. Racial equity should drive transportation decision-making. To achieve meaningful change, BIPOC communities can’t be an afterthought—they need a seat at the decision-making table as planning moves forward.
  • Prioritize community needs before chasing development potential. The new route should go where people are—serving both residential and commercial areas. Excessive focus on transit-oriented development (TOD) potential—a common argument for transit investments as economic investment drivers—ignores the underwhelming state of our current transit system. Metro Transit should focus on TOD routes only after it has served dense areas and can deliver just and equitable transit service to those communities.
  • Don’t make us wait another thirty years for the transit we need today. Transit needs in our communities are urgent and they are many. To truly meet those needs, we need faster solutions and more transit investment from all levels of government. To date the Bottineau Line has drawn $129 million in local money. It was noted on that these resources could have been spent elsewhere–including, for example, the unfunded D Line bus rapid transit project planned to serve North Minneapolis. To be clear: Light rail is not the enemy of rapid bus or vice versa; we don’t have to pit one good thing against another good thing! But we do need Metro Transit, State of Minnesota, and Hennepin County dollars to go where they are most urgently needed and where they will have the most impact. A Move Minnesota study from earlier this summer showed that ready-to-build bus rapid transit projects that need just $55 million more would save existing riders 1 million hours of travel time a year. Every day those investments are delayed is a day in which people and our climate are harmed. Keep a Bottineau redesign moving forward? Yes. Get those buses rolling immediately? Yes.

Redesigning the Bottineau Line presents an opportunity to plan and build a line that really benefits the communities it purportedly serves. Also, critically, it also presents an opportunity to build faith in the value of transit. Our current, under-resourced transit system does not serve enough people well: our commuter lines are fast and efficient but don’t provide all day service. Our local lines too often travel like molasses and don’t come often enough to merit the “high-frequency” designation given to them. When, instead of improving this core system or providing new lines that showcase the potential of transit, pours resources into construction projects that don’t actually transform the region, it sours people’s support for future investments. And it should! Because the public’s instincts are right: there are better ways to spend the money.

Done well, transit is an amazing tool. It is a tool not only for mobility, but also for protecting our air and climate, advancing justice, and growing civic engagement, access to jobs and education, social connection, and economic strength.

We ask that Metro Transit and the Metropolitan Council embrace this opportunity and deliver a Bottineau Line—and a transit system—that improves the lives of current transit riders and grows our community’s excitement about, and use of, transit in our region.