Critical financing for the Gold Line, Minnesota’s first true bus-rapid transit project, could be at risk after federal funders raised questions about potential ridership in the congested east metro area. But transit planners say the project’s snag is temporary.

The Gold Line is slated to link downtown St. Paul to Woodbury, mostly along exclusive bus-only lanes hugging Interstate 94. Passenger service is expected to begin in 2024.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) released ratings late Monday for major transit projects across the country, as part of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget.

Projects must win a “medium” rating or better to qualify for highly coveted federal funding. But the Gold Line was tagged with a “medium low” ranking, knocking it out of contention for federal dollars, at least for now.

The Metropolitan Council, which will build and operate the $461 million Gold Line, is counting on the FTA to contribute about $207 million to the project, with state and local sources covering the rest.

Council officials on Tuesday characterized the FTA rating as a fixable setback.

“We have a solution to this problem,” said Gold Line Project Manager Christine Beckwith. “This doesn’t mean we’ve slowed down or we’re stopping or don’t have a solution.”

Beckwith said the council is adjusting its ridership models along the Gold Line’s 10-mile route, which includes stops in Oakdale, Maplewood, Landfall and St. Paul’s East Side. This will likely result in beefed-up configurations at four planned park-and-ride lots — two in Woodbury, one in Oakdale and another at the Sun Ray shopping center.

The council had preferred to leave some open space in those areas for future real estate development.

“We were definitely trying to be innovative on the project,” Beckwith said. “But the model the FTA uses indicates a demand for greater park-and-ride service than what we have now.”

Ridership figures for the Gold Line are not available yet.

Several cities have ambitious development plans to take advantage of impending transit service.

Oakdale is eyeing light industrial and office space and nearly 900 units of multifamily housing near the planned Helmo Avenue station. “It’s significant,” said Mayor Paul Reinke. “It will allow our residents to take advantage of [bus-rapid transit].”

Likewise, Woodbury sees “transit as an economic tool that’s currently not available in the community,” said City Planner Eric Searles. Three stops are planned for the east-metro suburb.

“All our members — including those not on the line — understand how important the Gold Line is to the prosperity of the whole east metro,” said William Schroeer, executive director of the transit advocacy group East Metro Strong.

The FTA report notes that the Gold Line ratings may change during the planning process. The line’s ranking will be re-evaluated by midyear, Beckwith said.

The project is different from the existing A and C rapid bus lines, which operate in traffic. The Red Line, which connects the Mall of America with Apple Valley, does not have a dedicated lane, either.


Twitter: @ByJanetMoore