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How a dog-whistle campaign against the Purple Line forced White Bear Lake transit into a corner

The call by opponents of the Purple Line to “stop the bus invasion” begs the obvious question: Invasion of who? 

A “No Rush Line BRT!” sign is seen in front of Salon 61 on Clark Avenue in White Bear Lake.
A “No Rush Line BRT!” sign is seen in front of Salon 61 on Clark Avenue in White Bear Lake.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

It’s not something you see every day, at least not in liberal Ramsey County: a room packed with older white folks whipped into a frenzy in opposition to … better bus service. 

That’s what happened about six months ago at an event in downtown White Bear Lake, a 25,000-person lakefront suburb with a historic downtown that nearly everyone describes as quaint. Over the past few months, a new group of local politicians has waged a campaign against a previously-innocuous transit investment. After the November election swept the anti-bus contingent into power, regional transit planners were forced to come up with a last-ditch compromise.

The plans for the Purple Line

The White Bear bus backlash stems from long-standing plans for transit running through Ramsey County, from downtown St. Paul and the East Side, up to Maplewood, Vadnais Heights and ending in White Bear Lake. Once dubbed the Rush Line (now the Metro Transit Purple Line), the project is in the process of getting federal transit funding. It would be one of two new east metro bus rapid transit (BRT) routes starting construction soon and could begin service in 2026.

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Those plans have probably changed, thanks in part to the anti-transit town hall, with an open-mic and jeering, hostile atmosphere reminiscent of a Trump rally. Sponsored by outspoken City Council Member Bill Walsh, the public testimony offered a consistent, confusing mix of misinformation, dog whistles and anti-government screeds. The opening of the discussion was framed by Tim David, the founder of an anti-transit website called the No Rush Line Coalition, whose front page declares in bold, “STOP THE BUS INVASION.”

So what’s really the problem with the Purple Line? Sorting through the complaints, I boil it down to three things: traffic, cost and public process.

A rendering of the proposed Purple Line route.
Metropolitan Council
A rendering of the proposed Purple Line route.
From a transit planning perspective, while the Purple Line BRT isn’t a home run, for an east metro project it’s as good as you’ll find. While our region’s approach to transit planning has some serious flaws, the Twin Cities does a much better job than most U.S. metros.

Yes, the Purple Line is expensive, with construction budgeted at over $400 million. The cost is tightly linked to the federal transportation funding formula, and half of the money will come from federal grants, with most of the other half from a countywide sales tax that’s been in place for years. If you think about transportation spending with any sort of big-picture lens, automobile travel is still by far the country’s most subsidized form of transportation. Almost every wealthy nation spends more on transit than the U.S., a key reason for our high carbon pollution.

Another common complaint is that the buses will worsen local traffic, an argument that flies in the face of common sense. Downtown White Bear Lake currently sits on Highway 61 (the historic route of passenger rail), and around 30,000 vehicles use the highway each day; a few dozen extra buses would represent a tiny fraction of that, and anyone riding the buses will likely be removing cars from the highway. 

The final key kvetch is about the process, in which case I have to point out that if the BRT project comes as a surprise, you haven’t been paying attention. Among other things, for almost 20 years signs posted along the Bruce Vento recreational trail — a key part of the route — have stated to everyone passing that “this right of way is designed for possible future light rail transit.” I’ve been riding past those signs for years, watching their once-brown paint fade in the sun, and imagining the transit line that was going to someday occupy the trail. 

Trail sign
Ramsey County
For almost twenty years signs posted along the Bruce Vento recreational trail have stated to everyone passing that “this right of way is designed for possible future light rail transit.”
Reading behind the lines of the outrage — the only way I can make sense of the angry jeers — the concerned citizens of White Bear Lake are reacting to a perceived change in the character of the town. 

But it’s the call to “stop the bus invasion” that begs the obvious question: Invasion of who? 

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As is often the case, race is the elephant in the room. White Bear Lake is an affluent, 90% white suburb, while St. Paul is far more racially and economically diverse. According to Met Council data, White Bear Lake has built only a pittance of affordable housing in the last 20 years, making it all but impossible for working-class people to live there. As one campaigner railed against “mass transit, urbanization and dense housing,” it wasn’t hard for the audience to connect the dots. 

The fomented transit backlash takes a page straight from the Scott Walker playbook. In 2010, then-Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Walker invoked Chicago and Milwaukee in running against a high-speed rail connection that had already received federal funding. The art of skirting explicit racism is so embedded into American politics that, by this point, it’s practically the national language.

In this case, a White Bear political candidate, since elected to City Council, pledged to “stop White Bear Lake from turning into Downtown St. Paul.” The now-mayor promised he would “preserve and protect White Bear Lake” from the bus. Another speaker warned the audience about the “inner city.” Every plea not to “destroy our downtown” was met with raucous cheers.

The ironic thing about the campaign to “preserve White Bear Lake” is that its cherished downtown wouldn’t exist without quality transit from downtown St Paul. Starting in 1871, White Bear Lake was a stop on the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad (now the Minnesota Commercial), which brought people to and from Downtown St. Paul in 20 minutes.

As shown in this map from 1917, White Bear Lake was a stop on the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad, which brought people to and from downtown St. Paul in 20 minutes.
As shown in this map from 1917, White Bear Lake was a streetcar stop, bringing people to and from downtown St. Paul all day long.
By the 1890s, the streetcar followed suit, and the town grew as the northeast terminus of the Twin City Rapid Transit Company. Most current downtown streets were laid out in that era, as White Bear Lake and the nearby Wildwood resort became urban destinations.

Fast forward 50 years or so, and transit service slowly waned in importance in White Bear Lake as suburbanization enveloped the old downtown. All-day regular bus service was cut in the 2000s during a budget crisis, and the city’s express bus service disappeared during the 2019 COVID pandemic.

The streetcar used to turn on this now-abandoned bus stop.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The streetcar used to turn on this now-abandoned bus stop.

Met Council looks for alternatives

The Purple Line promised to return quality transit to White Bear Lake, restoring the car-free connection to St. Paul that had built the city in the first place. That might still happen, in a roundabout way.

“I happen to live in White Bear Lake, and am very supportive of clean energy, transit options and being connected to the region,” said Victoria Reinhardt, who represents Maplewood, Vadnais Heights and White Bear Lake on the Ramsey County Board. “I have been supportive from the beginning, and we have fine-tuned things to make sure it met the needs and environmentally preferable way, namely with electric buses.”

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Despite the electric buses, the Purple Line is in flux thanks to the new political opposition from White Bear Lake City Hall. 

Earlier this month, the Met Council began studying alternatives that would cut White Bear stops from the official route. Even though the White Bear Lake City Council had given official support to the project five years ago, and despite the fact the Met Council doesn’t technically need local permission to add bus service, elected officials like Reinhardt and agency leaders want to prioritize collaboration if possible.

Instead of running the line to White Bear, one plan would end the BRT at Maplewood Mall, and have a second connecting bus continue north along White Bear Avenue to downtown White Bear Lake. While this “Purple Connector” bus wouldn’t receive federal funding, it would return regular bus service to the city for the first time in 20 years. 

“The downtown has so much uniqueness,” Commissioner Reinhardt told me. “I’ve lived here 47 years. I love this city and have been there for a lot of changes. One thing that hasn’t changed is the charm of downtown White Bear, and I don’t think that having a bus come into the city every half hour is going to change that.”

Personally, I was looking forward to taking the Purple Line to White Bear Lake’s historic, walkable blocks full of chiropractors, pilates studios and small businesses offering everything from CBD oil to yarn to maritime tchotchkes. Truth be told, I would have gone straight to the Big Wood Brewery to make small talk with locals about their boats. Now, anyone wanting to continue on to the suburban enclave will have to transfer at the mall and board a smaller, less-frequent bus to reach Banning Avenue.

To me, it’s a shame. Years from now, looking back at a moment desperate for climate action, people will be astonished that residents of a walkable suburb rallied against electric bus service. Someday, the Purple Line will be extended to White Bear Lake, an obvious destination along the upcoming corridor. For now, the dog whistles have the day, and a silly compromise will have to do.