A lot is riding on decisions before the 2013 Legislature as public transit plans forge ahead affecting communities from one end of Washington County to the other.
A $1 million bonding request, a new measure of governing authority for the Washington County Board and a metrowide sales tax increase are all in the hopper and will shape plans in four designated transit corridors.
The bonding request, if approved, will take planning for the Gateway Corridor to the next step in 2014, said Lisa Weik, who chairs both the Washington County Board and the Gateway Corridor Commission.
The Gateway Corridor runs along Interstate 94 between the St. Croix River and the Union Depot in downtown St. Paul. Last fall, after looking at several transit options, the commission overseeing the corridor's development settled on a bus-rapid transit (BRT) route — or possibly light rail, if funding allows — that would include stops at key points along the way, including 3M Co. and Sun Ray Shopping Center.
The drafting of a $3.1 million environmental impact statement on the project will begin this spring, Weik said. The bonding money would be used for preliminary engineering work — the process of figuring out where the pieces of the project will fit together as either the bus or light rail route winds along the freeway up Hudson Road and through eastern St. Paul to the depot.
That means the corridor commission faces another major decision before the end of this year: settling on either BRT or light rail as the transit mode of the future.
"We can't start the preliminary engineering until we've picked the locally preferred alternative," Weik said.
The route will be the same, Weik said, but the decision will come down to building and operating costs and many other factors. Each mode has advantages and downsides.
"Bus-rapid transit really mimics light-rail. It's light-rail on rubber tires," she said. In a BRT system, buses run in their own separate lanes, zipping along even more quickly than regular buses.
At the moment, however, the Washington County Board — in its other role as the Washington County Regional Rail Authority — does not have the authority under state law to plan and develop BRT systems, just rail lines.
It would need additional authority to plan a BRT system. Similar authority was given to the Dakota County Board when it developed its successful Cedar Avenue BRT system.
State Rep. JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury, has introduced a bill allowing the rail authority to develop bus lines not just in the Gateway Corridor, but the Red Rock Corridor between Hastings and St. Paul, the Rush Line — which now provides commuter bus service from Forest Lake to St. Paul — and the Hwy. 36 Corridor, which is on the radar for future transit development.
Ward is also chief author of the Gateway Corridor bonding request, which she said is likely to be folded into an omnibus bonding bill.
In a proposal affecting not just Washington County, Gov. Mark Dayton has also proposed doubling the quarter-cent sales tax collect in five metro counties — Washington, Ramsey, Dakota, Hennepin and Anoka — to fund transit projects through the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB). The tax would also be extended to Carver and Scott counties, which opted out of the initial 0.25 percent sales tax but still participate in CTIB as ex-officio members.
The governor has argued that the money is needed to pick up the pace of building out the metro area's transit system and take pressure off the state's general fund to pay for it. The budget projects $350 million in new transit revenues in the next biennium, offset by $46.8 million in saving to the general fund.
Ward sees merit in the governor's argument that strong transit translates to economic development, but she is still weighing her support for the revenue-raising plan. The need for public transit is clear, though, she said.
"A lot of people don't understand the benefits of mass transit because they don't see a benefit for themselves," Ward said. But when it comes to transit, "We're looking at some very big generational changes."
Many younger people now skip getting their driver's licenses in favor of using public transit to get around. On the other end of the spectrum, as more people start aging and give up driving, a reliable and well connected transit system offers independence and mobility.
Even though Washington County has benefited from CTIB funding, the local sales tax has been an issue with Washington County Board members. As Weik pointed out, the county's own legislative priorities for this session include support for consolidating transit oversight and turning over that responsibility to the state — including funding sources and the sales tax.