The Red Rock Corridor Commission last month voted overwhelmingly to back a controversial plan to introduce bus rapid transit service along a 30-mile transitway connecting downtown Minneapolis with Hastings, while leaving the door open for commuter rail expansion as far south as Red Wing somewhere down the road.
The board followed the recommendations of a recent report, an update to a 2007 alternative analysis study, which asserts that the project would provide much-needed commuter service and congestion relief for fast-growing bedroom communities in Washington and Dakota counties.
"The Metropolitan Council has projected that the southeast quadrant of the metro area will grow by another 100,000 people over the next 20 years," Red Rock officials said on the project's website. "Despite the growth in some of the outlying areas, 94 percent of the jobs in the study area are within Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the primary commute pattern is to these two downtowns."
Red Rock officials say they next will turn their attention to crafting a funding plan for the project, while building ridership on the existing express bus service along Hwy. 61, which had 234,881 riders last year, according to Metro North ridership reports.
At its March 24 meeting, with several members absent, the 11-member Red Rock board voted to adopt bus rapid transit, but didn't rule out the possibility of adding commuter rail service at some point in the future, said Commissioner Jen Peterson.
"That may be 20 years down the road. That may be 10 years down the road. That depends on how the population shift may be happening in the suburbs," Peterson, who also serves on the Cottage Grove City Council, said in a telephone interview.
Another commissioner, St. Paul Park Mayor Keith Franke, said last week that he didn't know whether BRT was "the answer."
"Do I worry that there won't be enough ridership? I would say yes. But, I would've had that worry even with the transit rail."
Washington County Commissioner Autumn Lehrke, who recently was re-elected chairman of the Red Rock board, did not respond to a request for comment.
Transit officials have estimated the annual operating cost of the Red Rock BRT line at $3.8 million — a price tag that includes the $1.4 million cost of operating the three Metro Transit express bus routes (routes 361, 364 and 365) that currently pick up passengers along Hwy. 61.
The long-planned project has drawn opposition from residents of the communities that will be served by the transitway, some of whom attended board meetings to voice their concerns. Pointing to other transit projects in the metro that have been plagued by delays, ballooning costs and low ridership, opponents questioned how much demand exists for transit services in the suburbs, where many people have their own cars.
The Red Rock line would follow one of two routes east from Minneapolis to Lower Afton Road in St. Paul, via Union Depot, then run south along dedicated lanes on Hwy. 61 to Hastings. Stations are planned for St. Paul's Battle Creek neighborhood, Cottage Grove, Newport and Hastings.
Red Rock board member Janice Rettman, a Ramsey County commissioner, said her frequent drives past a park-and-ride facility in Cottage Grove have only reinforced her conviction that the board made the right decision.
"It's packed," she said. "So there is some indication that ridership could grow."