West St. Paul residents who want to visit stores along the hazardous and soon-to-be construction-choked S. Robert Street will have an alternative to driving come February.
Two circulator buses will begin running along the street one day a week, with stops at various businesses.
The city has been contemplating the addition of a circulator for years. It is finally launching the service in hopes of helping businesses deal with the potential loss of customers during the upcoming overhaul of the streetscape.
The city also wanted to "help older adults feel energized and involved," Assistant City Manager Sherrie Le said.
"Lots of older adults in their senior years have a harder time driving around in busy traffic," Le said, especially navigating the so-called "insane lane" — the turn lane in the middle of S. Robert Street.
Sandra Araujo has seen too many crashes and pedestrians hit by cars. She is the branch manager at Ideal Credit Union on S. Robert. About 25,000 vehicles drive past the business daily, according to a 2010 state traffic count.
"It's a very old population and Robert Street is one of the more dangerous streets in the county," Araujo said.
She hears complaints from her customers about the roadway and hopes the circulator will cut down on the number of drivers on the street. Even 20 fewer cars would make a difference, she said.
She has talked with other business owners about the bus and they are excited about the additional service, she said.
But they're still concerned about a loss of customers during construction.
West St. Paul is about to solicit bids for a massive redo of the street, including adding a median, fixing the pavement and adding sidewalks and landscaping.
City officials plan to keep two of the road's five lanes open during the project, which will start this year and occur in phases through 2017.
The circulator may keep operating after construction wraps up if there is funding and ridership to support it, Le said.
During the first six weeks of operation, the "pilot project" phase, the city and Dakota County will share the cost of the circulator.
Afterward, the cost of operating the two buses, which will total $600 a week, will be covered through grants, donations from riders and business owners and money from selling advertising space on the bus, Le said. The city will likely fill in any gaps, she said.
The buses and drivers will come from DARTS, a nonprofit that provided transportation services in Dakota County for decades. The Metropolitan Council recently terminated its contracts with the organization after an audit showed it falsified records and did not properly maintain buses. DARTS said at the time it had taken steps to correct problems noted in the audit.
Much of the plan for the circulator is still in flux. The city does not have a firm start date for operation — sometime in mid-February — and is surveying residents about where they want to go in order to set the routes. Bus routes could later change based on community feedback, Le said.
For now, the city plans to have buses run every 20 to 25 minutes from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. They will run two routes, alternating between the paths every other week.
That way, a rider could grab groceries and stop in the hardware store one week, then eat lunch at a restaurant and get a haircut the next, Le said.
Jessie Van Berkel • 952-746-3280