More than 40 people crammed into a nondescript office space in Maplewood this week to contemplate the future of public transit service in the Twin Cities' northeastern suburbs.
That future involves a relatively unknown bus-rapid transit (BRT) project called the Rush Line that will stretch from Union Depot in St. Paul to downtown White Bear Lake.
An advisory committee of elected and appointed officials, community members and business representatives gathered for the first time Thursday with the mission to guide the planning process while an environmental study along the route is done over the next two years.
"We have been working on this for a very long time," said Maplewood Mayor Nora Slawik, who was elected chair of the Policy Advisory Committee. She recalls discussing transit options for the area way back in the mid-1990s — and even now, the current iteration isn't expected to begin service until 2026.
The Rush Line's progress comes as several big transit projects on the east side of the Twin Cities kick into gear, including the Riverview Corridor streetcar (St. Paul to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and Mall of America) and the Gold Line BRT (St. Paul to Woodbury). Others, such as the Red Rock Corridor (St. Paul to Hastings) and several rapid-bus lines, are in the works, too.
The Rush Line is "starting a new phase," said Andy Gitzlaff, senior transportation planner for the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority. "This means it 'goes live.' "
Planning big transit lines is time consuming and bureaucratic. The Rush Line advisory committee will ultimately report to the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, which will then hand the project off to the Metropolitan Council. The regional planning body will build and operate the line.
Still, much work on the Rush Line has already been done by transit planners.
The route has been identified — it snakes through the east side of St. Paul through Maplewood, a tiny portion of Vadnais Heights and White Bear Lake, some of it shared with county-owned right of way that runs alongside the Bruce Vento Regional Trail.
Bus-rapid transit is much like light rail because passengers pay before they board, and service runs every 10 minutes during rush hour. The buses operate on their own dedicated lanes — about 85 to 90 percent of the Rush Line's 14-mile route would be used just for its buses.
At least one controversy has already been averted, as the route was changed to avoid running through the heart of Swede Hollow Park in St. Paul.
A decision was also made to end the line in White Bear Lake, as opposed to farther north in Forest Lake, through Hugo. A 2017 study found the limited ridership along that northernmost stretch wouldn't justify the overall expense of about $1 billion to build it. But there's hope that bus service from Forest Lake will connect to the BRT terminus in White Bear Lake.
Some 20 stations have been selected, as well. A budget of $420 million to $475 million has been tentatively set, almost half of which would come from the federal government, and the rest from local sources.
Bus-rapid transit was chosen over other transit options, such as light rail, streetcar and something called a "diesel multiple unit" — a train powered by diesel engines. One of the perks of BRT is that it's a third to half the cost of light rail, Gitzlaff said.
Fixed transit routes tend to attract more real estate development because developers prefer building where routes won't change. But BRT isn't considered as fixed as light rail, and this could negatively affect the rating the project gets from the federal government as it parses out highly competitive grant money to transit projects nationwide.
As Thursday's meeting crept toward its second hour, Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt offered a bit of trivia: The Rush Line is so named because it was originally slated to end in Rush City.
Slawik chimed in that the name of the project could be changed to the Purple Line (to complement the Gold Line). "It's exciting because it's going to be a winning year," she added, referring to the Vikings. At that point, everyone in the room chuckled.