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Broader Transit Options Finally Moving Toward East Metro

August 24, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
When it comes to 21st century transit improvements, the Twin Cities' eastern suburbs have a right to feel ignored and disrespected. The metro area's first three light rail lines - one in operation, one under construction and one angling to start preliminary engineering soon - will go no farther east than downtown St. Paul. Our one commuter rail line, the Northstar, is strictly a west metro service. And the only bus rapid transit services being built both run south from Minneapolis.

So if you're among the one-third of Twin Cities suburbanites who live in the east metro and would like an alternative to commuting by car, there's no need to discuss much: Just hop on the bus, Gus. If one runs in your neighborhood, that is.

Help may be on the way, however. East metro government and business leaders are mounting new campaigns to link western Wisconsin, Hastings, the northeast suburbs and beyond to the core cities via high-quality transit. These initiatives have the potential to balance a Twin Cities rail transit map that now tilts heavily to the more populous and prosperous south and west.

Here's a look at each of these proposals, all still in early planning and financing stages:

Red Rock Corridor - A distant dream of southeast suburbanites since 1998, the Red Rock has won a federal transit corridor designation but not federal engineering authorization so far. A locally financed study has pointed to commuter rail on existing Canadian Pacific and BNSF freight tracks as the preferred transit mode.

Relatively weak ridership projections have slowed progress on this corridor, although the Metropolitan Council has said that could change based on long-term performance of the Northstar, which in its first year of operation is meeting but not exceeding its own projections.

Another possible drawback is an estimated capital cost for track and signal improvements, rolling stock and stations of around $600 million, nearly twice that for the Northstar. The price could come down, however, if fast passenger rail to Chicago follows the same route and assumes the track costs.

Meanwhile, the Red Rock Corridor Commission is launching local station planning on the southeastern leg of the route at Hastings, Cottage Grove, Newport and Lower Afton Road in St. Paul. Community meetings at those sites are being held this month. Other stops between the Union Depot transit hub in St. Paul and the Target Field multimodal hub in Minneapolis would depend on which freight railroad line through the inner cities the commuter trains use.

Gateway Corridor - This relative newcomer to the transit planning fray could leapfrog its rivals based on its heavy commuter traffic - nearly 150,000 a day - on Interstate Hwy. 94 between the Wisconsin border and downtown St. Paul. Projected growth could make congestion there worse, strengthening the case for bus rapid transit or light rail along the freeway or commuter rail on Union Pacific (UP) tracks from St. Paul through Oakdale and Lake Elmo to as far away as Eau Claire, Wis.

An 18-month study of those alternatives will begin in September, just weeks after the local transit commission adopted the Gateway brand to replace its former "I-94 Corridor" working title. Local leaders say the new name better describes the corridor as a port of entry to Minnesota and avoids confusion with transit planning efforts along other stretches of I-94.

The study will consider possible transit improvements all the way from Eau Claire to Minneapolis, nearly 90 miles in all. If a commuter rail option is chosen, it too could benefit if fast passenger rail is routed through Eau Claire on the UP instead of the Canadian Pacific along the Mississippi River. Another factor in favor of the UP commuter rail alternative is less freight traffic competing with passenger service than on the Northstar and Red Rock corridors.

While the recently identified Gateway Corridor lacks any federal designation at all, results of the forthcoming study could shake up the Twin Cities transit pecking order, said Ted Schoenecker, a Washington County planner staffing the corridor commission. "Who's next in line for transit development could change month to month or year to year," he said.

Rush Line Corridor - This line on the planners' maps stretches from Hinckley to St. Paul, taking in freight railroad tracks, abandoned rail lines now used as nonmotorized trails and Interstate Hwys. 35 and 35E. Like the Red Rock, it has been hampered by low ridership estimates. A study completed last year ambiguously recommended either bus rapid transit from Forest Lake on the freeway or light rail from White Bear Lake along trail right-of-way.

Neither option is likely to be funded anytime soon. In hopes of building ridership demand, corridor officials have asked for bids on a demonstration commuter coach service to be launched in mid-October. Plans call for four bus runs each weekday morning and evening between Forest Lake and St. Paul carrying a projected total of 200 daily riders paying $3 one-way fares. 

After years of virtual neglect by federal transit planners, the east metro is demanding more respect. Washington County, which has a stake in all three corridors, put in its bid two years ago by narrowly opting in to the Counties Transit Improvement Board and its quarter-cent general sales tax. The $1.4 million Gateway study is partly financed by that revenue, which shows the wisdom of that controversial investment in the future.

And that's a future far beyond tomorrow for all these transit visions. Estimated dates for service startup range from the late 2010s for the Red Rock to 2022 for the Gateway. But, as my mother always told me, good things are worth waiting for.

Photo credit: Dan Hendricks, creative commons
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