The Purple Line bus-rapid transit project cleared a key milestone with federal funders Monday, but opponents question how many passengers will ride the line after the COVID-19 pandemic has upended public transportation in the Twin Cities and beyond.

The $475 million BRT project, formerly known as the Rush Line, will connect Union Depot in St. Paul to White Bear Lake, with passenger service expected to begin in 2026. The 15-mile corridor includes stops in Maplewood, White Bear Township, Vadnais Heights and Gem Lake.

Metropolitan Council Chair Charlie Zelle said in a statement that the line will result in "significant economic, social and environmental benefit" to the region.

The council is now in charge of planning, engineering and building the line, after receiving the handoff from Ramsey County. And the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) approved its move into the project development phase of the highly competitive program that funds big transit projects nationwide.

Both are key procedural steps needed to qualify the line for about $237 million in federal funding, with Ramsey County chipping in the rest.

"This is nothing more than a 'feel good' PR piece that avoids the groundswell of opposition from thousands of residents and hundreds of businesses from St. Paul to Maplewood to White Bear," said Tim David, a critic of the line who lives in White Bear Lake.

David and others question the need for the Purple Line at a time when the pandemic and the remote work trend that followed in its wake have decimated commuter ridership between the suburbs and downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. It's unclear whether that ridership will ever return.

The critics want the project paused while the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies examines the effect the pandemic has had on public transportation ridership. By 2040, an average of 7,000 riders are expected to take the Purple Line on weekdays, but that estimate was calculated before the pandemic.

"We're experiencing unprecedented times with the pandemic," said Purple Line Project Director Craig Lamothe. "This project is a major investment, and we still will have ridership after we get out pandemic."

Lamothe said many of the major employers along the line employ essential workers who don't work traditional office hours and who would benefit from "all-day, frequent" transit service. Some of those workplaces include Regions and Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare hospitals in St. Paul, M Health Fairview St. John's Hospital in Maplewood and the Maplewood Mall.

Concerns have also been expressed about locating transit buses along part of the Bruce Vento Regional Trail, a popular thoroughfare for cyclists and pedestrians. But Lamothe noted the railroad right-of-way was purchased by Ramsey County years ago for use as a transit thoroughfare.

David said several miles of green canopy provided by trees on the Vento trail, named after the late Minnesota congressman, will be eliminated to make way for buses. "We think that's a great loss," he said.

The news release Monday includes a quote from Vento's widow, Susan, saying the Purple Line will "preserve the trail named after my late husband." Vento, who serves on the Met Council, added: "Bruce would have just loved it."