Light rail is close to being eliminated as a means of bringing commuters into St. Paul from the northeast suburbs on the proposed Rush Line transitway.
And transit planners finally agree that sending a transit line right through the sparkling green gorge that is Swede Hollow Park would miss a chance to connect riders more directly with jobs and shops on busy East Side streets.
But there’s still plenty left to fight over and react to, including which St. Paul street to bestow with thousands of more commuters.
As the options narrow, several public meetings are coming in the next three weeks to discuss what’s happening with the proposed Rush Line transitway. The line is one of three in the east metro area — the others are the Gold Line from Woodbury and Red Rock out of Hastings — about which key decisions are being made this fall on routes, stations and other details.
All three are shaping up as likely candidates for busways of varying types.
On the Rush Line, a major sticking point for East Side folks has been the option to run a busy transit line through the heart of Swede Hollow Park and its segment of the Bruce Vento Trail.
The idea was not well received. Deanna Abbott-Foster, executive director of the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood group, believed early on it would sacrifice the neighborhood for the sake of outsiders moving through it. She thinks that threat has passed, but neighborhood advocates are still watching closely.
“The planners kind of admit that it wouldn’t be viable,” Abbott-Foster said, “but it’s not all the way through the process.”
Plans are veering toward other options, said Andy Gitzlaff, senior transportation planner at the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority.
“It’s coming down to either Phalen Boulevard or East 7th Street,” he said. “One reason Swede Hollow is off the table is its lack of access to the community, to jobs and so on.”
That creates competition among the thoroughfares that are still on the list.
“We want it on 7th Street,” Abbott-Foster said. “For one thing, Phalen is an isolated place, almost as bad as Swede Hollow — it’s pseudo-parkland, but just grass. No one uses it.”
Gitzlaff concedes that in places Phalen is more developed on one side of the street than the other, but said the numbers don’t show a big advantage for either choice.
“Looked at in terms of our criteria, population density, employment, numbers of low-income people, people of color, redevelopment opportunities, they are two really good options,” he said.
Paris Dunning, interim executive director of the East Side Area Business Association, said his members favor E. 7th. Creating the line would cause disruption and a loss of parking which is already a “colossal problem,” he said, but there’s a payoff in the end.
“There are businesses on East 7th, much more so than Phalen,” he said. “People don’t go to Phalen to do anything, they’re not stopping on the way. We’re trying to build a cohesive East Side that ties in to [the St. Paul Saints’] CHS Field and Lowertown as well.”
Much as some in the area would prefer light rail, the corridor is unable to support it owing to “ridership and cost,” said Mike Rogers, project manager for Ramsey County.
The threshold for light rail to be viable has been high in this metro area, Gitzlaff said — roughly 30,000 riders a day, where other parts of the country have installed it expecting as few as 15,000.
But the Rush Line with light rail would be expected to draw no more than 7,000 to 10,000, he said, while a busway’s draw would range from 5,500 to 7,000. “That’s in the ballpark for federal funding,” he said.
Farther from downtown, planners at upcoming open houses want people to think about using White Bear Avenue as a route along with some county-owned right of way that occasionally skirts residential backyards. An advisory group is recommending that the bulk of the route to the northeast take place on county-owned rail right of way running alongside the Vento Trail that was acquired long ago for transit.
“It’ll change the character of the area,” Gitzlaff said. “We’ll have models made with 3-D printers to show how it will feel at key focus areas.”
The transitway search area includes trips all the way to Forest Lake. But planners have been warning that right now ridership drops off a lot once you get past White Bear Lake, making the project less competitive as it seeks funding.