Despite what others say, many folks in White Bear Lake welcome the Purple Line BRT and Bruce Vento Trail to town.
We recognize the impassioned opposition, but aren’t convinced by arguments of ruination, cost effectiveness, or subterfuge by the Metropolitan Council. As the region grows, our infrastructure has to grow with it, and rational, long-term planning and investments are the best way forward.
Local support and opposition appear about equal. Almost all city council votes have been 3-2, in both directions. The swing council vote switched from pro to con in the most recent city election, decided by 77 votes out of more 1,300 cast, with a 35 percent voter turnout. As with many local issues, ambivalence and/or disinterest wins, with about one-sixth against and a similar number for BRT.
We don’t believe claims BRT will add congestion. Upwards of 25,000 cars and 1,000 larger trucks and buses pass through White Bear Lake on the proposed route each day. Ninety additional buses is less than one percent of current traffic. People in buses and out of cars will reduce congestion, or keep it from going up as fast as it has been over the past decades.
We don’t expect, as some opponents predict, higher crime, drug use, vandalism and litter. There won’t be “syringes at the bus stop,” or “thugs on the bus,” to quote two of the more vivid online predictions. This hasn’t occurred in Burnsville or Roseville with the opening of their BRT lines. The impacts of transit on neighborhoods have been amply studied. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation studies is a good starting point. It found property values have been unaffected on Roseville’s A Line BRT; the Green Line light rail boosted nearby property values in St. Paul.
We realize the project is expensive, but think it is better than doing nothing, and that adding more general use auto lanes would be substantially more expensive and shorter-lived than transit. Growth in the corridor continues at a rapid pace, and we’ll need to add transport capacity to avoid daily gridlock. Adding two car lanes to highway 61 may be impossible, given current buildings, lakes, and wetlands that constrain highway expansion. If adding lanes is feasible, it would likely be towards the higher end of urban freeway construction as per general U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines and seen in recent north Metro highway projects, in the neighborhood of $25 – $50 million a lane-mile. This translates up to $50 to $100 million per highway mile, or up to $1.5 billion for additional lanes along the length. Car lanes have lower capacity than bus lanes, and have a short-lived impact on congestion because of induced demand. The U.S. is rife with examples of metro areas that first tried to build themselves out of clogged freeways, to little avail. New Jersey, Houston, Atlanta or L.A., anyone?
We believe a traffic engineers’ estimates of ridership over opponents’ feelings or hunches. Predicting demand decades in the future is hard, and the planners and engineers have shot above and below targets. Ridership on the light rail Blue Line was 30 percent higher than predicted, A Line estimates on target, and the Northstar estimates too high. “Because I won’t ride it” isn’t a general analysis, so isn’t convincing. Ridership estimates are scrutinized by transportation engineers from MNDOT and Met Council, and the Federal Transportation Administration evaluating it.
We know BRT won’t ruin the Bruce Vento Trail in White Bear Lake, because the trail ends near the southern border of town, with no parking and dangerous pedestrian access. A companion project would extend the Bruce Vento Trail to downtown White Bear Lake, giving kids and families in south White Bear safe bike access to downtown, and all town residents a safe connection to the Bruce Vento Trail.
We know the Metropolitan Council has listened to input, and isn’t trying to rush the project or ignore or hide objections. Planning goes back more than two decades, with meeting agendas, comments, and notes available via public-access websites, openly available online. The route has been shortened and the alignment modified to reflect local input, and station locations and design substantially altered. Signs on the Bruce Vento Trail for nearly three decades have announced a future transit corridor.
Buses are less convenient than cars, until congestion makes them more convenient. Then some drivers switch to become riders. Likely users aren’t retirees that can avoid peak times, rich folks that can afford a car for each kid, or folks that work at or near home. But unless the northeast Metro stops growing, which isn’t likely, users will include commuters to good jobs in St Paul, families of modest means, seniors past driving age for travel to clinics or outings downtown, teens that can’t drive to their first job, and service workers along the corridor. Our town will be at an economic disadvantage to those with better transportation networks, including transit.
Paul Bolstad is a 30-year resident of White Bear Lake.