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East Metro’s Rush Line transit getting in line for funding

From my perch here in the East Metro, it has long seemed like most of the interesting mass transit planning in past years has been West Metro-centric, especially with light rail on Hiawatha and so much talk about the North Star Line.

Lately, though, we’ve seen increased vigor in efforts to bring light rail to the Central Corridor, connecting the St. Paul and Minneapolis downtowns via University Avenue. The big question there: Can they get the funding, and will there be enough to bring the line all the way to a renovated Union Depot, for connection to Amtrak and other rail options?

East Metro Rush Line gearing up
And now, with the first snows of the season bringing the usual mayhem for northeast metro commuters — snow delays on top of the Unweave the Weave construction! — it’s good to know there’s another East Metro plan in the works: the Rush Line. Its goal is to get people into downtown St. Paul from Forest Lake, North Branch, Hinckley and other spots along the Interstate 35 North corridor.

It doesn’t get much publicity, partly because it’s not here yet and partly because it’ll use buses in the first phase, not light rail or trains. But they’re supposed to be cushy coach-type buses, so that should be good.

A giant committee of planners from many counties is looking at the situation, with a long-term goal to get trains running someday far in the future. In the meantime, they want to start with buses.

This session, they’ll ask the Legislature for money to run four buses into downtown St. Paul each weekday morning from North Branch and Forest Lake, then four more buses back north after work. Studies — and you know how studies are — indicate there are 400 people willing to take the trip each day. Cost would be $4.50 one way from North Branch, $3.50 from Forest Lake and $2.75 from a stop somewhere in White Bear or Vadnais Heights.

They’re asking for the state to pay $700,000 to run the buses for 18 months. That’s in addition to the amount collected in fares.

Trip length still an issue
According to planning expert Alicia Vap at the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority, the trip would take about an hour from North Branch, 45 minutes from Forest Lake and 30 minutes from the White Bear area. That’s considerably longer than it takes by car, because of the stops, particularly when the buses get downtown. They’re considering stops at the Capitol complex, the downtown core and across the river in the Lafayette Park area.

Interestingly, the Metropolitan Council announced recently that it will use some I-35 bridge money to begin a bus line from Forest Lake to downtown Minneapolis, starting in January. That’s scheduled to run only until the new bridge is built. Initially, the Rush Line planners had considered routes to both downtowns but settled on St. Paul as the first priority.

The Met Council’s new route from Forest Lake to Minneapolis may actually help get the St. Paul route rolling, said Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt. “It will show that there is a need for this type of route, and will bring attention to what we’re doing,” she said.

Reinhardt, who chairs the Corridor Task Force, said planning for transit in that northeast corridor is crucial for the region.

“A large number of people want to get out of their cars and every time we open up a new park-and-ride lot, it fills right up,” she said. “We believe there are 400 people who want to ride to St. Paul every day, and if anything, I think it’s actually higher than projections. There’s a pent-up demand, and I think this route will be very successful.”

For East Metro transit, bonding authority for the Central Corridor is a huge priority at the Legislature, Reinhardt said. State action is needed soon or the available federal dollars will hop a train and ride off somewhere else, she said.

Still, there is also great need for the small Rush Line appropriation, too, she said.

“But you never know what they’ll do in the Legislature,” she said.

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