St. Paul: Checking in on East Metro transit developments

ARTICLE via PIONEER PRESS

The groundbreaking changes along the 11 miles of the Green Line between St. Paul and Minneapolis are apparent as we take stock of east metro transit developments as a new year begins.

We’ve read about the economic development it seeded and about projection-topping ridership since the billion-dollar public investment that enabled the light-rail line’s launch in June.

Behind the headlines, conversations with public officials and transit leaders highlight some ways the line will influence what happens in 2015 and beyond. Here are some of the key issues in play:

A lever for more?

Maybe so. The biggest accomplishment for transit in 2014? “We have introduced people in the east metro to what high-quality transit looks like and what it can do for the community,” said Will Schroeer, executive director of East Metro Strong, the coalition formed to advance the transit vision in Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties.

Now, folks “get it,” he said. “I genuinely think we have entered a new era where people really understand the value of transit to a region and to a community.” His takeaway: They look at the Green Line, see 40,000 people a day riding it and $2 billion in investment along the line and say, “We want that in our community.”

4 Rs and a G

Schroeer predicts that, as 2015 progresses, more people in the east metro will be able to name its five developing transit lines.

Using his shorthand, they’re Riverview, from downtown St. Paul to the airport and Mall of America; Rush Line, north to Forest Lake; Red Rock, connecting Minneapolis, St. Paul, Hastings and communities en route; Robert Street, south through West St. Paul; and Gateway,east to Washington County and Woodbury.

East Metro Strong is putting together a vision for the way all five lines, working together, will support “a more competitive, prosperous east metro,” Schroeer said. Before the organization’s formation, with a grant from the McKnight Foundation, “there wasn’t a place where those five lines … looked at how they were going to work together.”

Among them, the 12-mile Gateway route from Union Depot to Manning Avenue is the furthest along, earning a place on the fast track for federal permitting last year. The system — the first in the state to use bus rapid-transit in a “fixed guideway,” its own lane — is estimated to cost about $460 million, compared with more than $950 million it would cost to build light rail in the corridor.

In planning for station areas this year, “people will start to see what the outcomes could be,” Gateway Corridor Commission Chair Lisa Weik, a Washington County commissioner, told us. It will add all-day transportation options to a corridor that currently lacks them, she said, options that can “vastly change the prosperity for individual families and communities.”

Transit equity

In her “biography” of St. Paul, “Claiming the City,” Mary Lethert Wingerd wrote that the Pioneer Press energetically feeds the rivalry between the two cities. Guilty as charged. St. Paul needs strong advocacy from a variety of institutions.

But, like many others, we’re open to the idea that as the Twin Cities region prospers, so do St. Paul and the east metro.

It’s “not a competition with the west metro,” said Schroeer, the East Metro Strong coalition director. “My thinking is that the whole region needs the east metro to be prosperous. Neither the east metro nor the entire region will be prosperous if the east metro doesn’t have sufficient transit investment.”

To work, a system needs to be regional, “so it’s in the interest of the entire region that the investment be balanced,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, chair of the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority.

It’s time, he said, to talk about a transit system and stop thinking “one line at a time.”

When it comes to transportation, high-priority work on roads and bridges — firmly anchored in needs here and now — will rightly command attention at the Legislature and elsewhere. Welcome big-investment, high-profile projects like the Lafayette Bridge and I-35E/Cayuga projects surfaced in several of our conversations, as did St.┬áPaul’s “Terrible 20″ streets. The lane-restricted Kellogg Bridge “is a strong reminder that transportation funding across the entire country has been punted down the road,” St. Paul Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer told us.

In the new year, we’ll need to focus both on immediate needs and the future, as work on transportation-funding solutions plays out and as new transit lines develop.

 

Will Schroeer, Executive Director
will@eastmetrostrong.com