officer Officials reach a deal on Hennepin Avenue bus lanes

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and City Council members on Thursday reached an agreement to allow dedicated bus lanes on the rebuilt Hennepin Avenue — though only for 6 hours a day.

The council’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee approved the measure with a 5-1 vote. It fell short of the 24-hour dedicated bus lanes that transit advocates and some council members wanted, but is still expected to boost transit access along the Uptown Corridor.

“We are really excited. This is a big win for the city,” Frey said in an interview after the vote. “This touches on each aspect of prioritizing bus service, protected bike lanes and accommodations for businesses. We are thrilled. It’s what we were hoping for.”

The compromised plan will go before the full council for final approval.

“It is a compromise, and a compromise does not mean you get everything you want,” said Council Member and Committee Chair Andrew Johnson. “This is a deal we believe a majority of the City Council and the mayor can support. This is the next best thing to agree on and get it pushed through.”

The Hennepin Avenue reconstruction project — slated to begin construction in 2024 — includes reducing the bustling thoroughfare between Lake Street and Douglas Avenue to one travel lane in each direction and adding bike lanes, bus lanes and wider sidewalks. Metro Transit is simultaneously planning a new bus rapid transit line on Hennepin Avenue connecting the University of Minnesota with downtown Minneapolis and the Southdale Transit Center in Edina starting in 2025.

In June, Frey nixed the idea for round-the-clock bus lanes, noting that transit does not operate all hours of the day. At the time, he said the plan for 24-hour bus lanes would “ignore countless small businesses, many of them BIPOC-owned, who compromised both for the protected bike lane and prioritized bus lanes at the expense of a substantial amount of parking. “

The council failed to override the mayor’s veto, which sent the project back to the committee.

Council Member Aisha Chughtai and others spent hours negotiating with Frey and his administration in recent weeks in an effort to come to a resolution. The deal triples the number of hours each day that transit vehicles can operate in a dedicated lane and implements quarterly assessments for evaluating transit operations. Chughtai called those “meaningful commitments.”

“I am sorry this is the best outcome we can get at this moment. This is as far as I could get the mayor to move on this issue,” she said during the committee meeting, in a nod to supporters of 24-hour bus lanes. “All-day bus lanes should not be controversial.”

But they have been a major sticking point in what city officials have called the most complex street project in history. Bus lanes were always part of the physical design, but there was never consensus on how they should operate. Advocates for and against the bus lanes have staged rallies and spoken out throughout the design process, which began about 3 years ago.

Council Member Elliott Payne, who voted for the amended proposal, expressed disappointment and said he was concerned the vote delays the city’s response to climate change.

Council Member Robin Wonsley cast the lone dissenting vote, which she called “the most important vote of this committee this year.” She said transit-dependent residents lost the most in the deal.

In his veto letter to the council in June, Frey said the city could still achieve its goals for climate and transit while preserving a reasonable number of parking places and offering transit services up to 24 hours a day. And bus lane hours could be expanded in the future, said Public Works Director Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Thursday’s vote simultaneously accomplishes the need for safety and sustainability, the mayor said.

“We wanted a decision based on metrics and data, not on politics,” Frey said.