City Council Committee Votes for Hennepin Layout and Full-Time Bus Lanes

My takeaways from yesterday’s City Council Public Works and Infrastructure Committee vote on the Hennepin Ave reconstruction.

What was approved by the committee?

The physical design of the street was approved unanimously. If you’re familiar with the pre-existing staff recommendation then you know what’s in it: the 4-to-3 lane conversion (1 lane each way with a center turn lane), the raised bike path, the median, and all the pedestrian improvements you’ve come to love about the original plan.

In a separate 3-2 vote, the committee approved a staff direction, authored by Ward 10 Council Member Aisha Chughtai, calling for two things: (1) immediate implementation of the full-time bus lanes upon reopening of the reconstructed street and (2) a “parking management task force.”

The full City Council votes next week. Send them an email or phone call. The decision on full-time bus lanes is going to be a close vote, with the city attorney’s office claiming the City Council doesn’t have the power.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher: This is “100% the same layout”

This is true but weaselly. The physical shape, curbs and boundaries of the street are the same. But her claim elides the fact that she is personally responsible for removing all-day bus lanes from the plan. The way the street will be used, and who it serves, is very different.

Two design options were presented to the public in March 2021. Both included a full-time bus lane. The final (as it was described at the time) staff recommendation made public this January also contained a full-time bus lane. That’s 14 months of signaling that full-time lanes are the policy. The only thing that’s changed since then is Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s appointment as Public Works director in February.

Anderson Kelliher committed to full-time bus lanes “as soon as possible” — but this isn’t an accurate description of what she’s doing.

You might think the definition of “as soon as possible” would be on day one of the street reopening after reconstruction. The street will have two years of reconstruction beginning in early 2024. Anderson Kelliher has clearly communicated her intention for “dynamic” bus lanes on Hennepin which is another word for part-time lanes. There is no timeline for a transition to full-time. Her action to halt implementation of full-time lanes should make us skeptical that she has a plan to allow them. It’s also confusing to me why it would be preferable to remove the parking for construction, restore it after construction is done, and then remove the parking again at some undetermined future date.

Is any of this being driven by data?

At the February 3 committee vote to approve her appointment, Anderson Kelliher made clear her intention to yank the full-time bus lanes from the plan. In other words, before she’d officially been hired for her new job, she’d decided to overrule the recommendation of staff who’d been working on the project for years.

As a sidenote, her covid-themed argument against transit upgrades (1) echoes the anti transit arguments often made by Republicans, (2) is not the dismissive standard we apply to the many other parts of our lives that have been temporarily impacted by the pandemic, (3) nor is it reflective of the fact that Minneapolis bus routes and BRT in particular have fared much better through the pandemic. She did not use the ridership argument at yesterday’s vote.

Stakeholders who’ve been briefed say that Anderson Kelliher’s department has talked about implementing northbound lanes from 7-9 am and 4-6 pm, with southbound lanes operating from noon to 6. Yesterday, traffic engineer Allan Klugman said this is only an example. It’s still possible, based on traffic data, that they might only implement northbound lanes for half the length of the project area. That so much of this could be left up to Anderson Kelliher’s political judgment and discretion means we should fear the further kneecapping of these bus lanes.

What did Public Works staff say before Margaret Anderson Kelliher arrived at the city three months ago?

At the time of publishing this post, this FAQ still exists on the city’s Hennepin Ave project page. It explains why “full-time transit lanes” are a necessary part of the layout and connects that recommendation to city policies that support it.

Complaints about parking

The justification for yanking the full-time bus lanes is basically that businesses are complaining about parking. Businesses always complain about parking, in ways that we often understand as kneejerk and overblown in hindsight. No new data was presented to explain why they suddenly believe these ever-present parking complaints are now a reason to cut the bus lanes.

I’ve written previously about the city’s parking data.

“It’ll be done in collaboration with Metro Transit.” -Allan Klugman, traffic engineer

Recent events have taught us this sentiment isn’t worth very much. Metro Transit has no power to compel the city. The transit agency has already communicated their desire for all-day transit lanes, back when it appeared Minneapolis leadership had a strong commitment to such a thing (Metro Transit letter to the city, August 4, 2021: “all-day bus lanes are critical to the success of both the Hennepin Avenue reconstruction project and the METRO E Line”). I’ll repeat: Anderson Kelliher, before even stepping into her job, made a decision to overrule her professional staff, despite years of work. If she pulls off this particularly shameless political maneuver, there’s no reason to think she won’t continue doing it.

Executive branch power grab?

A weird new subplot of the Hennepin redesign approval process is Margaret Anderson Kelliher calling in the city attorney’s office for backup. The city’s lawyers argued the City Council doesn’t have the legal authority to decide whether a street will be used for bus lanes. They said street operations are determined by the executive branch — the city engineer or public works director. This is despite the 12 previous times over the last half century that the City Council has acted to dedicate street lanes to bus or light rail transit. I am not a lawyer but I look forward to learning more about this legal theory before next Thursday’s full council vote.

Anderson Kelliher didn’t seem to realize that Minneapolis already has full-time bus lanes on city streets.

To diagram the complicated rhetorical maneuver that’s happening here: The person responsible for roadblocking has rhetorically shifted to taking credit for a historic first — at some undetermined future date — for a thing the city has already done multiple times.

What did the 15 members of the Minneapolis legislative delegation who funded the bulk of the $60 million E Line bus rapid transit tell the city about full-time bus lanes?

The legislators say that failing to include full-time bus lanes risks “Schedule interruptions and delays will suppress ridership, and is tantamount to forcing the route to fail, the effort and resource it took to create it will have been wasted.”

Emily Koski misstated Metro Transit’s position

Let’s reiterate the fact that Metro Transit is on record with their support of the full-time lanes. Ward 11 Council Member Emily Koski can probably be forgiven for misstating Metro Transit’s position (suggesting they support part-time lanes), because she seemed to be teeing up the questions Margaret Anderson Kelliher wanted to have asked.

Ward 10 CM Aisha Chughtai spoke up to correct the record: “Using the word ‘support’ feels like a little bit of an exaggeration of what the letter actually says. The letter doesn’t support or endorse the dynamic [part-time] lanes, but makes some requests of the city should we choose to move forward with dynamic lanes.”

BREAKING: Parking concerns are probably still a concern

Almost all the things that make the Uptown Association unhappy are still definitely happening. They didn’t like the bike lanes. They didn’t like the medians. Many didn’t like the fact that the road was going to be closed for construction for an extended period. This last point is something that was never negotiable. It’s an old street. At a certain point reconstruction is going to happen.

Klugman, the city’s traffic engineer, mentioned the intention to implement parking meters north of 28th Street. The idea of paying a few dollars to park will surely displease business owners further. Taken together, I don’t think anyone who hated the reconstruction is going to be mollified by potentially stripping down the bus lanes. It could end up being one of those compromises that makes things worse, while making nobody happy.