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Expanding mass transit in east metro is a fight to catch up

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Mass transit
Commuters board Metro Transit express buses at the Park-and-Ride site in Woodbury, Minn. Tuesday, April 9, 2013. Officials are exploring mass transit options in the east metro.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

State lawmakers will announce proposals later this week to help pay for expanding mass transit in the Twin Cities.

East metro officials, who are trying to help the east metro transit catch up to the west, are watching the action very closely and have renewed efforts to advance a wish list of bus and rail lines.

A proposed Gateway rapid bus or light rail line extending along Interstate 94 couid help people get from downtown St. Paul to Woodbury, and then even on to Wisconsin.

The transit line is still in the early stages, but Washington County commissioner Lisa Weik said planners think a Woodbury station could go in right across from a Walmart and nearby businesses.

"Because there is more business development along here and the transit improvements would support additional commerce," Weik said.

The line will provide much needed transportation for the fast growing city of Woodbury, Weik said. Projections show Gateway attracting up to 10,000 riders daily when it opens, likely in 2022.

Right now buses run only during rush hour without evening or weekend service.

Highway traffic
Westbound traffic travels along I-94 near White Bear Ave. in St. Paul, Minn. Tuesday, April 9, 2013. Officials are exploring mass transit options in the east metro.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"To just have commuter buses in the morning and in the afternoon is really an issue that I hear about a lot when I'm out in the communities," Weik said. "Probably one of the top concerns among my constituents is to have additional mobility options."

The proposed Gateway line is one of several mass transit projects in the works for the east metro. It's the farthest ahead.

Federal funding for similar transit is extremely competitive. Cities with projects that are most advanced in terms of planning are more likely to get that federal money. 

The west Twin Cities metro has not one, but two new mass transit projects ready to move forward.

Southwest light rail transit would connect downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie through the southwest suburbs. Bottineau LRT would run between downtown Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park in the northwest metro.

LOSING THE LEAD

There was a time when the east metro was farther along.

"In the long run, the fact that we have to work with others and get agreement just ties the communities closer together, moving into the future."

Several decades ago, there were plans for a light rail line that would have connected downtown St. Paul with Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America.

Those plans fell apart and instead Minneapolis got the Twin Cities' first light rail line, Hiawatha.

Next year, the Central Corridor light rail line begins operations between downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis.

Ramsey County Commissioner Raphael Ortega remembers the original fight to connect downtown St. Paul to the airport.

There is more appetite for transit in the east metro now, Ortega said, even among former opponents. St. Paul and Ramsey County recently agreed to resume studies.

But the east metro faces hurdles that the west metro does not when it comes to building out transit, Ortega said. Most west metro transit lines run entirely within Hennepin County. Not so for the east metro.

"You're talking multiple counties, dozens of cities. We have to build consensus, Ortega said. "But in the long run, the fact that we have to work with others and get agreement just ties the communities closer together, moving into the future."

Ortega wants to see St. Paul lead efforts for more transit. That was the idea last month when St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman revived a transit alliance to secure more investment for the east metro.

That group's co-director Matt Kramer said one of its goals will be to finally complete the airport triangle and build out the rest of the transit system. By not building the St. Paul link years ago, Kramer said the east metro is behind.

"By not being first we didn't fall to second place. We didn't fall to third place; we didn't even fall to fourth place," Kramer said. "Fifth place at best, and we still have to make the case."

Despite growing calls for more transit in the east and west metros, the question is how to pay for it.

In his revised budget, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed an additional transit-dedicated half-cent sales tax to pay for almost two dozen projects. The new tax would be mandatory for all seven metro counties. Just five counties currently contribute.

Lawmakers are expected to announce their own transportation funding proposal later this week.