After studying a variety of options to ease one of the most congested roadways in the metro area, a panel has decided that a bus rapid transit (BRT) line linking St. Paul and Woodbury is just the ticket.

The decision, announced Friday, culminates two years of intensive study and public meetings in communities along Interstate 94 from the Twin Cities to Hudson, Wis., dubbed the Gateway Corridor.

It's part of an upcoming major transit makeover in the east metro with downtown St. Paul's Union Depot as the hub.

"The commission's charge was to determine if the east metro could build a cost-effective, economically viable transit option that improved mobility and supports future economic development," said Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik, chair of the Gateway Corridor Commission.

The commission includes city and county officials and business leaders from communities along the corridor.

BRT allows buses to bypass stalled traffic in their own lanes or on the shoulders. The line envisioned by the commission would run along Hudson Road from St. Paul to Woodbury.

The commission looked at eight options -- including a light-rail line and a full-blown commuter line to Eau Claire, Wis. -- and concluded bus rapid transit best met all its goals.

Light rail, however, has not been eliminated, said Andy Gitzlaff, senior planner for Washington County who also works as project manager for the commission.

The commission envisions a bus-only lane from St. Paul to the vicinity of Manning Avenue in Woodbury and Lake Elmo, with buses running at all times of the day. Bus service would also be expanded to run from Manning Avenue to Hudson. No such interstate service now exists, Gitzlaff said.

The BRT lane would begin at Union Depot and run along the north side of I-94, between the freeway and Hudson Road, and the I-94 median, where one exists. Ten station stops are proposed, including Union Depot, Metro State University, Sun Ray Shopping Center, 3M and other job centers.

The commission's BRT plan carries an estimated cost of $400 million, while light rail would cost $900 million. Light rail came in a close second among the options and will be studied as planning goes forward to compare costs and see whether it is still a viable option.

"The big differentiating factor was that [light rail] had the same benefit as BRT, but it had a higher cost," Gitzlaff said.

The next step in the planning process is a draft environmental impact statement, which will begin in 2013 and could take about two years, Gitzlaff said. If all goes smoothly, construction could begin by 2018, with the lane operating by 2020 or 2021.

Federal dollars would bear half the cost. Of the balance, 30 percent would come from the Counties Transit Improvement Board (a consortium of five metro counties that collect a quarter-cent sales tax and $20 motor vehicle sales tax), 10 percent from the state and 10 percent from Washington and Ramsey Counties.

Population along I-94 in the east metro is 300,000. More than 90,000 vehicles cross the St. Croix River at Hudson each day; by the time traffic reaches St. Paul, the number of vehicles swells to 150,000.

The corridor population is expected to grow 30 percent in the next 20 years, along with 30,000 new jobs. Before the commission began its work, no major capital highway investment was planned to address growth in the corridor.

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039