Planners of the Gold Line — a bus rapid transit project serving the east metro area — are seeking public input to help the $461 million project secure critical federal funding.
Local funding for the project is already coming in, with a Metropolitan Council advisory committee accepting $75 million to support the line earlier this week. So far, two open houses have drawn people interested in learning how the Gold Line will affect the environment along its proposed 10-mile route.
Those steps have moved the proposed Gold Line a little closer to 2024, when service is expected to begin between Woodbury and downtown St. Paul. The route, which also would serve St. Paul's East Side as well as Landfall, Oakdale and Maplewood at 21 stations, generally hugs the north side of Interstate 94 using dedicated lanes.
The Met Council's recent outreach drew several dozen people who reviewed an environmental assessment of the project, said Christine Beckwith, Gold Line project manager. Written comments on the report will be accepted from the public until Nov. 6, and a copy of the report is available at several local libraries.
"People had lots of questions about the project and were supportive," Beckwith said. "Nothing caught us off guard."
For now, the Gold Line's controversies appear to be in the past. After Lake Elmo objected to the project in 2016, the route was diverted to Woodbury, which welcomed it. Then, two years later, additional stops were added in downtown St. Paul, beyond just Union Depot. Last spring, the council increased the budget by $40 million to $461 million, after adding bike and pedestrian paths and possibly electric buses.
Supporters of the line say access to public transit will bolster economic development in the area.
"The east metro has particularly poor access to jobs by transit, and the Gold Line is a crucial part of fixing that," William Schroeer, executive director of the transit advocacy group East Metro Strong, said in an e-mail. "In particular, the Gold Line will serve the [thousands of] people working at 3M headquarters with high quality transit for the first time."
Nothing surfaced in the environmental report that would appear to imperil the project, and transit planners are hopeful to begin engineering work next year. The 139-page tome (and several appendices) is a key cog in the painstaking process to win funding from the Federal Transit Administration, which is expected to cover about 45% of the cost to build the project.
The report assesses whether the project complies with environmental laws and evaluates its impact on environmental, economic and transportation resources along the route.
For example, between 6,350 and 7,100 daily passengers are expected to use the Gold Line by 2040, with about 67% of them taking the Gold Line to work. Most will walk to the stations serving the line, according to the report. Construction of the line is expected to displace up to 21 businesses.
From an environmental standpoint, the report notes the Gold Line will be constructed in an urban setting where roadsides and residential areas may provide "limited habitat" to protected species, including northern long-eared bats, rusty patched bumblebees, and Blanding's turtles. To minimize harm to the rusty patched bumblebee, disturbed land will be replanted with native flowering vegetation "wherever possible."
On the funding front, a new joint powers board has formed of representatives from Ramsey and Washington counties to collect and parse local funds dedicated to the project, including revenue from a transportation sales tax levied in both counties. "The locals have to front the money now," with the expectation that the Federal Transit Administration will come through with its grant money as the project nears construction, Beckwith said.