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.