A lot has happened (or, more precisely, not happened) since we last checked in on Ramsey County’s Purple Line, a proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) project to White Bear Lake. Such is the way of transit planning in the United States of America, where barriers multiply and planners often struggle to find workable compromise.
At the time, a grassroots anti-transit movement of irate White Bear Lake business owners was organized to fight reliable transit service between downtown White Bear Lake and St. Paul. As I wrote then, the impulse was ironic given White Bear Lake’s history as a classic Twin Cities railroad suburb, a walkable town that grew up around a railroad depot with all-day commuter transit service.
That history is water under the railroad bridge these days. The anti-transit campaign found fertile ground in the tony suburb, and elected local politicians refused to further cooperate with the county. (The county commissioner representing the area has decided not to run for reelection.) That left Purple Line planners in the lurch, grasping for another solution.
It’s frustrating because the Purple Line is one of the most promising East Metro transit projects, a 15-mile bus rapid transit project that would use regional transit funding (collected regionally for transit capital costs) to invest in improvements in Ramsey County. Without White Bear Lake’s walkable destination as an anchor point, planners have had to come up with alternatives. The best answer in the northeast metro is the Maplewood Mall, already a transit hub and (despite the fragile state of malls in 2023) a key northeast metro destination.
The latest wrinkle reflects a changing approach to regional transit, away from rail corridors and toward commercial streets, mirroring the successful arterial BRT program (e.g. the A, C, and D lines) making strides in Minneapolis and St. Paul. County officials have proposed to Metro Transit to shift the route away from the leafy Bruce Vento rail corridor —currently a bike and walk trail abutting backyards in St. Paul and Maplewood — to White Bear Avenue, an urban East Side arterial.
From the perspective of transit fundamentals, the proposal is a generally sound idea. It’s important to put investments directly where the density is located, rather than taking convenient routes that might be farther from people’s final destinations. Currently, the county is asking Metro Transit to study the two alternative routes — one on the street, and one on the trail — to decide which will have greater future transit benefits.
The other big advantage to the White Bear Avenue alternative is that it would finally fix a too-dangerous street. White Bear Avenue is a classic case of what I’ve previously called a “four-lane death road,” or four-lane undivided arterial, a 20th-century road design reflecting a century of misguided engineering. Its design prioritizes reducing driver congestion above every other social factor‚ most importantly, the safety of drivers and pedestrians alike. With few exceptions, they’re the most dangerous roadways in our urban road network and getting rid of these streets, even if they have a lot of traffic, has become common practice on busy streets like Lyndale or NE Broadway in Minneapolis, and Maryland Avenue in St. Paul.
Look to the B Line
The present Purple Line proposal replaces White Bear Avenue’s four-lane design with alternatives using dedicated bus lanes in various configurations. The dedicated right-of-way is critical because of the federal transit funding formula, which requires at least 50% of the route to have space reserved for transit vehicles. In most of the scenarios, the bus lanes would either be shared with turning drivers or run in their own section of the street.
If you want a real-world example of how this might look, head to the route of the B Line, a Metro Transit-led bus project under construction on Lake Street and Selby Avenues. Even though buses aren’t scheduled to run until 2025, new construction has already reduced traffic speeds and improved safety along both key avenues. The one-way bus-lane configuration on East Lake is almost an exact match for one of the most promising Purple Line designs, and shows how such a layout could benefit pedestrians and drivers on the East Side.
Like most recent Twin Cities transit projects, there are always new hurdles. This fall, the City of St. Paul pushed back on proposed bus lanes along Maryland and White Bear Avenues, asking planners to study three-lane designs that would not include dedicated right-of-way. In the latest presentation to the Corridor Management Committee, county officials refused, pointing out that the proposal would disqualify the entire project for federal funding.
Hopefully, that debate can be worked out during internal conversations between cities, Ramsey County, and Metro Transit, which will be making the final recommendation after next year’s study. In the meantime, it’s encouraging to see that new ideas might salvage a transit plan that’s decades in the making. Staying flexible has become a necessity in the United States, where transit almost always faces tremendous bureaucratic, legal, and financial hurdles.
For example, if the Green Line extension planners had had a moment to pause before deciding on its (now misguided) route, it might not be such a boondoggle. Other projects like the Hennepin County’s Blue Line, St. Paul’s Riverview Corridor or similar examples from around the county often seem to be victims of their own intransigence. If the Purple Line proposal pans out, it might show that the road to a transit-oriented future is paved with last-minute decisions and flexibility.