Next big transit question for St. Paul: What’s the best way to get to the airport?

Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega
County Commissioner Rafael Ortega

The government officials studying what’s currently called the Riverview Corridor have a lot of ideas for how to get transit riders from downtown St. Paul to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Problem is, they only need one.

“We’re getting there,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, who is chair of the corridor’s Policy Advisory Committee.  “In the next couple of months we’ll have a much better picture.”

As of now — years into the planning of the transit project — there are still lots of options for modes and alignments and routes. And there are options within options when it comes to a half dozen key locations along the route.

Over the next three months, the committee must decide whether to recommend using light rail or bus rapid transit or the current No. 54 buses. If they go with LRT or BRT, do they leave downtown along W. 7th or Smith Avenue or both via one-directional couplets? Do trains or buses cross the Mississippi River at State Route 5 or pass through the Ford site and reach Minneapolis over the Ford Bridge?

The list of decision points goes on. Does that new mode link up with the existing Blue Line near Minnehaha Falls Regional Park or via Fort Snelling and the planned visitor center? Or does the new route circle south to Bloomington and the Mall of America and tie into the Blue Line there?

By late June or early July, the committee must agree on what in transit parlance is the locally preferred alternative — one vehicle, one alignment, one bridge crossing, one connection to the Blue Line.

“It gets a little confusing for people,” Ortega said, at least compared to the Green Line, which connected the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis along University Avenue. “It isn’t like University, which is pretty much a straight line and you pretty much know where it is going.” 

Long time coming

Riverview Corridor is a route that has been talked about for nearly two decades. In fact, it was once in line to be the first light rail route serving the Twin Cities. But it was slowed by neighborhood and business objections and recessionary cuts to transit spending, and eventually fell behind the Blue Line and the Green Line rail projects.

It was then set to become the region’s second bus rapid transit line — after the now-up-and-running A Line, which links Roseville to the Blue Line at the 46th Street station in Minneapolis. It was even being studied as one of St. Paul’s first modern streetcar routes.

But all the modes and studies convinced Ortega and others to call for a comprehensive look to decide once and (hopefully) for all whether it is best served by light rail or bus rapid transit. Under the direction of the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority, the lengthy Pre-Project Development study could come to fruition with that locally preferred alternative.

From there, the Met Council would have to decide whether to place the project in its Transportation Policy Plan, which would mean the council taking it over from Ramsey County. Then it would follow the long and complex process created by the federal government to compete for federal funding.

One issue — how to complete the local funding package — could get clarity soon if a proposal to dissolve the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) is accepted by the members of the five-county board. That step would let each county currently in CTIB — Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington — double their transit sales tax, a step that would increase funding for transit projects by $80 to $90 million a year in Hennepin and Ramsey counties alone. The money would allow the counties to cover the state’s traditional 10 percent share of new projects, thereby removing a major factor in the years-long transportation funding impasse at the Legislature.

A few modes — modern streetcar, heavy rail and something called diesel multiple-unit trains — have been removed from further study for Riverview, though some sort of hybrid is still being eyed. That might be a vehicle that acts like a streetcar on city streets and can speed up like a light rail vehicle on the trip to the airport. Shepard Road is no longer being considered for the downtown-St. Paul-to-the-river pathway. The alignment also won’t use Interstate 35E.

A map of the Riverview Corridor Pre-Project Development Study.
Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority
A map of the Riverview Corridor Pre-Project Development Study.

One other possibility was recently eliminated. At its monthly meeting January 12, the Riverview Corridor’s Policy Advisory Committee approved a staff recommendation that it no longer study crossing State Route 55 on the surface to reach the Blue Line right of way. Such an at-grade crossing would have further muddled a complex intersection of highway, city street and light rail. If the new line needs to cross Hiawatha Avenue to tie into the existing light rail line, it will have to go over or under the highway.

Mike Rogers, the Riverview Corridor project manager, said Metro Transit is concerned that with a Blue Line train already passing through 46th Street every five minutes, accommodating additional trains that also have to cross 55 could harm on-time performance.

“If you try to fit a Riverview train into that mix, you’ve got a very, very small window to fit it into,” Rogers told the committee. This would be exacerbated if Riverview trains share lanes with vehicles, which makes it more-difficult for trains to stay on a strict schedule. Metro Transit reports that it already has difficulty staying on a strict schedule in downtown Minneapolis even with trains that run on dedicated corridors.

Consultant April Manlapaz said an engineering solution — either a bridge or a tunnel — is something that can be designed. The costs of such a solution would have to be balanced against potential budgets.

But the rail authority staff and engineering consultants continue to study using BRT and light rail to reach the airport. Whether the line would also serve the in-planning redevelopment of the former Ford assembly plant would determine both how it crosses the river and where it connects to the Blue Line. If it uses an existing Canadian Pacific rail spur to enter and transverse the Ford site, the line would use the Ford Parkway Bridge and connect near the 46th Avenue/street station.

A rail line that doesn’t pass through Ford would likely cross the river over State Route 5, pass through Fort Snelling and tie in at the Fort Snelling station before entering the tunnel beneath the airport terminals. If either BRT or rail doesn’t connect to the Blue Line between Minneapolis and the airport, they might swing south through Bloomington and connect at the end of the line at the Mall of America.

The committee is looking at several responses to complaints from 7th Avenue merchants about the loss of parking, congestion and construction disruptions. If both dedicated rail lines are on W. 7th in the Seven Corners area, there wouldn’t be room for parking lanes. If the tracks shared lanes with vehicles, most parking could remain, except where stations are placed.

Another alternative is to use Smith Avenue for both outbound and inbound trains on what is being dubbed a transit mall. They could also create one-way tracks on Smith and 7th to ease the width of needed right of way on both. And trains could share lanes with traffic, allowing parking lanes to be maintained, though some parking spots will be lost.

Ortega said he is continuing to meet with merchants and residents along the way. It was those complaints, after all, that scuttled the project 15 years ago.

“I want to make sure we take a look at everything,” Ortega said.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/23/2017 - 11:15 am.

    The alernatives

    … are about to become fewer in number: (https://www.planetizen.com/node/90804/trump-budget-blueprint-would-nix-federal-transit-spending).

    If Mr. Trump and his apppointee at the federal level do what it appears they’re poised to do, Twin Cities residents won’t have to worry about light, heavy, medium or petite-rail lines for several years, at the very least. It may not be the “best” way, but there’s a good chance that taking your car, riding the bus, or taking a taxi may well remain your only practical ways to get to the airport from St. Paul, unless you own a helicopter. By eliminating mass transit, the Trump government will be able to help maintain the profitability of oil companies, auto and bus manufacturers, and highway construction-affiliated firms. Win-win!??

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 01/23/2017 - 12:06 pm.

    A prediction

    Based on past their past performance, I’d bet that Ramsey County and City of St. Paul officials will make their decision according to their notions of promoting development rather than satisfying transit needs. And I’d also bet that the Met Council will agree to that decision, no matter whether it makes sense for the region.

    Trump has his “America First” slogan and Ramsey County/St. Paul have their “Development First” philosophy, while the Met Council has no spine.

    • Submitted by Derek Thompson on 01/23/2017 - 05:50 pm.

      What makes sense to the region?

      Does “making sense to the region mean running the line out to a auto dependent that will be slower and less convenient than a car? Or, does it mean it should serve the fastest route between downtown and the airport as possible? If that is what you want a direct bus would probably be the best option. What do you think is best for this line?

  3. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 01/23/2017 - 09:36 pm.

    Keep the 54 Bus

    I take the 54 bus every time I go to or fro the airport. Works like a champ. Takes 18 minutes from the Xcel Center to the airport. Why do we need to spend $40-300+Million to fix something that isn’t broken? Not to mention the loss of parking on 7th St, etc.

  4. Submitted by Pat Brady on 01/25/2017 - 06:49 am.

    LRT or BRT works fine

    Lets get this done in my life time !
    I live off W7th street, we need this mode of transportation to complete the triangle with the other two LRT lines. It will also spur more developement along W 7th Strete and thoughout the neighborhoods, which will be great for our fair city.

  5. Submitted by Mike Downing on 01/29/2017 - 12:43 pm.

    100X better than the Eden Prairie LRT!

    The St. Paul to Airport LRT makes 100X more sense than the high cost and unnecessary Eden Prairie LRT. However, this article confirms that LRT is really a redevelopment boondoggle rather than a real cost effective transit system.

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