A commuter bus line from Forest Lake to downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul pulled onto the fast track after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge.
Members of the Rush Line Corridor Task Force studying the express bus service decided last month to speed up progress. Although the funding needs to be finalized, buses could be running by January.
"If we can help, then we should," said Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, the task force chair. "We're cautiously optimistic that we can help mitigate some of the traffic concerns as a result of the bridge collapse."
Commissioners from Anoka, Chisago, Ramsey and Washington counties are confident that they can come up with their portions of the startup costs, which range from $130,000 to $165,000.
Transit has become a hot issue in the metro area. Some southwest suburbs are pulling for a light-rail line to Minneapolis. The Central Corridor, linking Minneapolis and St. Paul, is slated to start in 2014. A rail line along the Northstar corridor could be running by 2009 or earlier. And studies are in progress for the Red Rock commuter train, which would go from Hastings to Minneapolis via St. Paul, as well as a line from St. Paul to Rosemount.
The Rush Line Corridor stretches from the Union Depot in St. Paul to Hinckley and has been the subject of rail discussions since the late 1990s.
But earlier this year, a task force of representatives from the five counties and 20 cities and towns along the corridor commissioned a study to see whether commuter bus service would work.
The study showed a big demand for transit in the area.
The Rush Line bus service would depart from Forest Lake and send one coach bus to downtown Minneapolis via Interstate 35W and another coach bus to downtown St. Paul via I-35E, with one stop in White Bear Lake.
Estimates call for a maximum of 350 riders per day to Minneapolis and a maximum of 400 riders per day to St. Paul. There would probably be four morning trips and four in the evening. Fares would range from $2.75 to $4.50 per trip, depending on where riders board.
Traffic forecasts predict that by 2020 congestion on I-35/I-35E will increase by 25 percent south of I-694, by 65 percent between White Bear Lake and Hugo, and by 50 percent north of Hugo.
The Rush Line project has been modeled after the Northstar Commuter Coach service, which runs 16 trips daily between Minneapolis and Elk River. That route had about 475 daily riders in 2001, its first year of operation, and grew to about 700 per day in 2006.
Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah is a fan of the Northstar bus service and noted that 80 percent of the budget is paid for by rider fares.
"It's unheard of. That's very successful in the transit world," she said.
Rush Line proponents are hoping fares will pay a big portion of its budget, too.
Paying the way
The main concern at this point is getting the initial money lined up. The project's cost for the first year is estimated to be about $800,000, and the counties are trying to cover three-quarters of that cost, said Alicia Vap, senior planner for the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority.
The various county boards will be considering their proposed contributions over the next few weeks, and the county commissioners on the task force are confident they'll get the money. Pine County has already voted not to contribute to the bus service, said Commissioner Roger Nelson.
"We're committed to the concept," he said. But because Pine County would have no riders in the current route, he said, it wouldn't make sense to pay right now.
Planners still need to determine exact locations for bus stops and contract for buses.
While the bus plan is motoring along, another study looking at the feasibility of rail service is about two-thirds done. A successful commuter bus service could be a factor in helping to get federal money for a rail line, although task force members acknowledge that a train would still be at least a decade away from reality.
For now, though, Rush Line bus supporters are optimistic that the rubber will hit the road early next year -- maybe even sooner.
"It meets a community need but also lays the groundwork for potential transit options in the future," said Chisago County Commissioner Ben Montzka. "It's a step we have to take for our future."
Chris Havens 651-298-1542
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