Monday, October 30, 2006

Bonoff would give the green light to light rail

My weekday commute takes me suburb-to-suburb, between Plymouth and Eden Prairie. I used to take the side streets, winding through Plymouth, Minnetonka, Hopkins, Minnetonka again, and Eden Prairie, and reversing course in the afternoon. Sections of Shady Oak Road and Minnetonka Boulevard were often jammed during afternoon rush hour. I-494 was usually backed up for miles at that time.

This month, the long-anticipated third lane in both directions on I-494 between Eden Prairie and I-394 fully opened for business. The widening of this I-494 segment was completed in 2006 thanks to a decision by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to get an early start on several approved highway construction projects. It's been clear sailing ever since. The far left lane is clear most of the time, except for the speed demons going in excess of 70 MPH, even during afternoon rush hour. It's almost like the autobahn of the western metro — south of I-394 at least. North of I-394 is another story.

The northwestern suburbs, namely Plymouth, Maple Grove, and points east and west, need a comprehensive transportation plan, yet none is scheduled for almost a generation! Sen. Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka) said in a recent press release, "I was surprised to learn that the western suburbs are not part of the long-term metropolitan light rail transit plan, and I strongly believe the I-394 Corridor is an extension of the central corridor that serves a growing population of commuters," said Bonoff in the press release. Last legislative session, Bonoff authored a bill to have the Met Council study I-394 for a possible light rail line from downtown Minneapolis to the western suburbs.

Bonoff thinks that we all need to get onboard light rail in the northwestern suburbs now, even before the Met Council studies the situation. Light rail, an expensive and inefficient people mover, is not the answer for I-394. According to U.S. Census data, road congestion has actually increased faster in cities with light rail than in cities that have invested mainly in roads.

The Interstate's HOV lanes have already been outfitted with MnPASS. MnPASS has increased traffic flow in both the HOV and regular lanes on I-394, without building additional lanes. "Income is expected to increase in years to come as overall traffic in the corridor increases, and MnPASS supporters expect the project to become fully self-sufficient within a few years." Further, half of excess MnPASS revenues ("profit" in the private sector) is earmarked in statute for transit.

Judy Johnson, Bonoff's Republican challenger for the SD 43 seat, has already been "an effective statewide leader on transportation issues," according to David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Minnesotans for Better Roads and Transit. Johnson's $2.5 billion plan for highways and multimodal transit will get the northwest metro moving again — especially on I-394, I-494, and Highways 55 and 169 — without raising taxes and without light rail.

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