Twin Cities: Connecting the East Metro: Pioneer Press editorial

Source: Pioneer Press 12/01/2015

Think of the Riverview Corridor this way: It’s the long-awaited “third leg” of a public transportation triangle in the Twin Cities.

The Blue Line connects downtown Minneapolis and the MSP airport. The Green Line links downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. But on the final leg — the 12-mile corridor from Union Depot to the airport and Mall of America — the only option now is the Metro Transit 54 bus, a report by the Pioneer Press’ Sarah Horner points out.

Among its objectives, Riverview transit development would help correct “that imbalance between Minneapolis having that direct connection for the last decade and St. Paul still lacking it,” City Council Member-elect Rebecca Noecker told us.

“Any major city needs a direct, easy-to-understand and ideally fast route to the airport,” said Noecker, whose ward includes part of the corridor.

But when travel planners tell visitors about arrival in the Twin Cities, the options for reaching one of the two downtowns can amount to these: a quick and convenient light-rail trip to Minneapolis or a bus to St. Paul that will arrive subject to weather and road conditions.

“My fear is — absent that connectivity — that convention planners and others will say it’s more convenient to get to downtown Minneapolis than downtown St. Paul,” St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer told us.

Riverview transit development “becomes that connectivity that allows both downtowns to compete on their own basis,” he said.

When it comes to that ability to compete, we don’t hesitate to raise the flag for St. Paul and the east metro.

When you look at transit maps of St. Paul and Minneapolis, “it sure seems like it’s being teed up to have light-rail lines radiating from the hub in Minneapolis and buses radiating from the hub in St. Paul,” Kramer said. “That’s not acceptable.”

Meanwhile, the process is lengthy and there’s much to consider, including cost and the balancing of priorities. Among them, Noecker told us, is working to assure that new transit will “be an amenity that also benefits people who live along the corridor” and that it connect to development at the former Ford plant site in Highland Park.

A new report on the corridor is aimed to examine the handful of public transportation routes and modes most worthy of further study, Horner reported.

Mike Rogers, transit project manager for the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority and project manager for the Riverview Corridor, highlights the importance of taking “the appropriate amount of time to really look at things,” along with the “opportunity to talk to the public about what they’re interested in seeing.” Details on the effort and opportunities for public input are at riverviewcorridor.com.

There are a “whole basketful of options,” Rogers told us, noting that a key task now is to “figure out which handful” should receive more detailed technical analysis.

Options, Horner reported, include using West Seventh Street and an old Canadian Pacific Railway spur that runs parallel to it as possible routes. Among modes mentioned are bus rapid transit in mixed traffic or with its own lane, the “modern streetcar,” light rail and a multiple-unit train powered by diesel. Development also could mix and match routes and modes along parts of the corridor.

As we advocate for east metro, we recognize the value of the regional approach, with transit development on the corridor good for downtown St. Paul — and good for the region.

“If you want the region’s two downtowns to both prosper, then this is a critical link,” said Will Schroeer, executive director of East Metro Strong, the coalition formed to advance the transit vision in Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties.

It’s not only about downtown to the airport, he told us, “it’s about connecting the whole east metro to Riverview.”

In a prosperous region, those connections matter.

 

 

 

Pioneer Press Editorial: Keeping bus-rapid-transit on pace in the east metro

Saint Paul Pioneer Press Editorial, June 24, 2015

East-metro transit advocates are wise to make the “jobs” connection when they draw attention to the Minnesota Legislature’s decision against including funding for the Gateway Corridor this year.

Jobs are a compelling reason to see that the 12-mile “Gold Line” bus-rapid-transit project — from downtown St. Paul along I-94 to Woodbury — keeps on pace toward its target completion date of 2022.

“The timing right now is critical,” Gateway Corridor Commission Chair Lisa Weik, a Washington County commissioner, told us. The borrowing bill passed during the Legislature’s special session did not include $3 million to help fund the state’s share of the next phase of work along the corridor.

What’s at stake? Keeping the east metro competitive.

Weik is concerned about attracting new employers to the east metro, while pointing to some recent losses: The Hartford Financial Services Group is eliminating about 190 positions at its Woodbury office, according to a Pioneer Press report last month. An education nonprofit, ECMC, announced in April that it will move 500 jobs from Oakdale to downtown Minneapolis “to attract and retain workers.”

Meanwhile, employers along the corridor know part of their base of workers wants the advantages of transit over driving and parking, said St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer.

Transit is “a business enabler,” he said, noting that companies large and small rely on public transit to get workers to their doors and home again.

He and Weik are co-chairs of East Metro Strong, the coalition formed to advance the transit vision in Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties.

Weik explains that Gold Line project leaders have “calculated a 17-million-dollar-per-year inflationary construction cost hit to the project, at this point, if we have any delays to the schedule.”

Alternatives, she said, include approaching the Metropolitan Council or the state’s Department of Transportation for the funding state lawmakers didn’t provide.

Without that commitment, the project — which last year earned a place on the fast track for federal permitting — risks remaining competitive with projects elsewhere in the country, Weik told us.

At the same time, “we haven’t fully educated people on bus-rapid-transit,” said Kramer, who acknowledges that news about cost increases on the Southwest light-rail project was among challenges for transit advocates during the Legislative session.

The Gold Line will be the first in the state to use bus-rapid-transit in a “fixed guideway,” he explains, noting that drivers inching along I-94 in a snowstorm will see a bus in its own lane speed by their slow-moving vehicles.

When that “mode” was selected, it was estimated to cost about $460 million, compared with the more than $950 million it would have cost to build light rail in the corridor.

The alternatives analysis revealed that bus-rapid-transit was the most economical option. Smart people in the east metro — both elected officials and citizens — Kramer said, came together around “the best solution,” and the one most cost-efficient for the taxpayer investment.

That should lend support as project leaders work on options to assure they keep the Gold Line seamlessly on pace.

Employers — and jobs, jobs, jobs in the east metro — are counting on their success.

 

Will Schroeer, Executive Director
will@eastmetrostrong.com