What Lake Elmo doesn’t want, its neighbors Woodbury and Oakdale do. Those two bustling and development-minded cities have begun rallying around a new Gold Line bus rapid-transit route that could bring more jobs and tax revenue to strategic business sectors near Interstate 94.
The plan to divert the route — also known as the Gateway Corridor — from Lake Elmo and turn it south from Oakdale over a new Interstate 94 bridge to Woodbury has gained popularity since last winter, when the Lake Elmo City Council reversed its earlier support for a route through that city.
Now Woodbury and Oakdale leaders this month will consider resolutions favoring the new plan.
“The whole east metro is going to be served well by this line,” said Paul Reinke, an Oakdale City Council member. “To broaden our economic power and wealth is very important. What happens in Oakdale is good for Woodbury, and what happens in Woodbury is good for Oakdale.”
What’s at issue is the last leg of the Gold Line, which would extend from Union Depot in downtown St. Paul and through the East Side into Maplewood, Landfall, Oakdale and Woodbury. The transitway is projected to start operating in 2023.
The route under consideration would send rapid-transit buses south from Oakdale’s jobs hub at Helmo Avenue, over I-94 and into Woodbury along Bielenberg Drive, terminating at a park-and-ride at the Woodbury theater complex.
“This puts us in a more competitive arena with other metro suburbs,” said Janelle Schmitz, Woodbury’s assistant community development director. “If we don’t have transit coming to Woodbury we’re just not allowed to compete for certain types of businesses.”
The plan was presented recently to the Washington County Board, which has joined in recent years with cities in the county to fortify economic development and jobs efforts.
“Once developers and corporations know there is a commitment, [that] there will be an investment in an area, they will invest private dollars,” said Lisa Weik, a county commissioner from Woodbury who is chairwoman of the commission planning the Gold Line. “The private investment will follow the public investment at a higher rate.”
The Gold Line is critical for Woodbury to remain connected to the greater metro area, said Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens, particularly in helping people get to jobs. “I think generally there’s good support for it among residents and businesses.”
An open house will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Woodbury City Hall, an hour before a public hearing will be held seeking comment on the latest route proposal.
Access to workers, jobs
Some residents object to transit, saying it’s costly and unnecessary in suburban cities that have plenty of roads. The previous plan to extend the route to Lake Elmo caused “a tremendous amount of angst” among some Oakdale residents who thought buses would disrupt their neighborhoods, Reinke said.
“It’s complicated, it’s expensive, it’s emotional,” he said. But he added that the Gold Line also would bring more workers who don’t or can’t drive. “That is of significant importance also,” he said.
Even as it plods through the painstaking requirements for federal funding, the Gold Line must meet expectations of residents and public officials along the 9-mile route. Environmental studies and engineering work will be extensive. The projected $460 million cost, which includes the new bridge, would be covered mostly by a federal grant and funds from metro county transit sales taxes. Smaller shares would come from state funds and Ramsey and Washington counties.
Unemployment is low in Woodbury and Oakdale, but officials in both cities say businesses need more workers, particularly in the health, retail and hospitality sectors.
Oakdale wants “to retain access to efficient economical labor,” said Bob Streetar, the city’s community development director. One of the proposed stops, the Helmo Avenue Station, sits in an area he called the “jobs hub” that already has 250,000 square feet of occupied office and business space with room to add 450,000 square feet more.
It’s at Helmo Avenue where the Gold Line route would turn south over the new bridge and into Woodbury.
“We need to jointly market the region,” Schmitz said. “Having a strong economic base allows our residents a choice of where to work.”
Lyssa Leitner, the Washington County planner who serves as Gold Line project director, said recently that about 150 comments on the project have been received since June and that about 70 percent of them were supportive.
The Gold Line would better position east metro cities in a race to attract private companies that want access to fast and efficient transit, Weik said.
“The rest of the Twin Cities isn’t waiting for us,” she said. “Unless there’s a big surprise factor that nobody has considered yet, I think it’s very likely that Oakdale and Woodbury will vote to support it.”