Bus rapid transit (BRT) looms potentially large in Washington County's future, and in Cleveland, such a system not only transformed how people get around — it also has sparked more than $4 billion in new development that is changing the community.

Joe Calabrese, CEO of Cleveland's Regional Transit Agency, laid out the path of success of his city's HealthLine BRT system — completed in 2008 and just named the nation's best — at a recent forum in Oakdale drawing more than 120 business, community and political leaders.

As soon as ground was broken on the BRT line and financing of the $200 million project was secured, Calabrese said, investors flocked to start retail and residential projects along the route. "Other people leveraged what we did," he said.

Commuters, particularly younger people, are attracted to living close to the HealthLine, which draws 4.5 million riders annually. It takes its name from the nearby major employers Cleveland Clinic and University Medical Center — which pay for naming rights — and property values jumped 30 to 100 percent.

"We learned that viable, convenient, public transit is what young people want," he said. "If it happens in Cleveland, it will happen here."

BRT systems remain a strong possibility for two key transit corridors being developed in Washington County: the Gateway Corridor, which runs along Interstate 94 between St. Paul and the St. Croix River, and the Red Rock Corridor, linking St. Paul and Hastings along Hwy. 61.

The Gateway Corridor Commission, after studying several alternative transit options, has identified BRT as the best option, although light-rail is still being considered. Stops could include Manning Avenue and Woodbury Drive in Woodbury, and in Maplewood near 3M Co., near Sun Ray Shopping Center.

The Red Rock Corridor Commission, meanwhile, first identified commuter rail as the best long-term transit mode, but BRT is getting a serious second look. In the short term, the first step of building ridership will start this year with express bus service and additional park-and-ride stops. The first of four transit stations is slated to open in November in Newport. Others are planned for Hastings, Cottage Grove and at Lower Afton Road in Maplewood.

The object of the HealthLine's design was to create a system that was fast, user-friendly, safe and included attention to details far removed from the dingy, clunky image of traditional buses. "To us, 'bus' was a four-letter word," Calabrese said.

The 22 coaches on the line, advertised as "stretch limos," were custom-designed to be more train-like to draw riders. "The only difference was the composition of the wheels — were they rubber, or were they steel?" he said.

Riders step from station platforms at the same level onto the coaches; they even have a train horn. The vehicles have exclusive right-of-way in their own lanes to go at a steady speed, along with traffic signal priority. At peak hours, they run every five minutes, and on 8-to-12-minute intervals at off-peak times.

The details weren't limited to the vehicle design, either, Calabrese said. They also included the station design and surrounding areas. Project improvements included bike lanes, extensive landscaping with more than 1,500 trees, and public artwork.

Data show economic development clusters around transit corridors, said Jay Cowles, chairman of the Itasca Project's transportation initiative, and affirms that riders want the kind of amenities Calabrese described. The group is an alliance of business, public and nonprofit leaders concerned about the region's economic competitiveness.

Cowles' group last fall completed an in-depth analysis of the potential benefits of a regional transit system. The rate of return on a $4.4 billion investment was calculated at $6.6 billion to $10.1 billion, and even more if the system were to be developed more quickly.

Along with a return on investment, it opens up the labor pool by allowing a two-way flow of people, both to the city and to the suburbs, in pursuit of jobs. "That is a very desirable effect," he said.

Investing in transit also poses a competitiveness issue for the region's economy, added Peter Frosch, director of strategic partnerships at Greater MSP, a public-private Twin Cities economic development group.

"We're not ahead in this game nationally," he said. "Transit is no longer considered a competitive advantage. It's expected. It's a given."

That's also true within the Twin Cities region, added Rafael Ortega, Ramsey County commissioner and vice chairman of the Gateway Corridor Commission.

"It's about the region. It's about how we compete as a region," he said. "We need a balanced approach to growth in the region, and we need to make sure the east metro grows at the same rate as the rest of the region."