A key Ramsey County suburb could pull its support of the Purple Line, the embattled bus rapid transit route planned between St. Paul and neighboring suburbs.
Maplewood Mayor Marylee Abrams, who had been a staunch ally of the Purple Line, asked the City Council on Monday to withdraw its support — a move that could put the 15-mile line in jeopardy. Abrams said she recently learned details of a Metropolitan Council plan to buy and demolish some or all of a Maplewood shopping center to make way for the project.
The Purple Line, formerly called the Rush Line, was supposed to link the downtowns of St. Paul and White Bear Lake, running through St. Paul's East Side, Maplewood, Vadnais Heights, Gem Lake and White Bear Township.
The line, in the works for more than two decades, has grown into a $475 million venture involving the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Ramsey County, the Metropolitan Council and communities served by the proposed route. Supporters said the line's electric buses will reduce traffic, lower pollution, align with Ramsey County's climate goals and give residents a reliable and affordable alternative to driving.
But Abrams said the Met Council has done a poor job communicating plans to city leaders and the public. She said the regional agency, which oversees Metro Transit, promised community engagement that has not come to fruition — and she learned about the plans for the shopping center only after someone tipped her off at the end of September.
"To say I was shocked about the new proposed route of the Purple Line would be a serious understatement," Abrams said during the City Council meeting Monday. "It seems to me that this new proposed routing and the significant and profound impact of this new route is something the Met Council is doing to us here in Maplewood. They are not doing it with us."
The council has agreed to vote to withdraw its consent for the Purple Line at its Oct. 24 meeting. It would not be the first community to pull the plug: White Bear Lake rescinded its support earlier this year.
According to Abrams, the Met Council proposal centers on using eminent domain to secure property at the Birch Run Station Shopping Center on Beam Avenue near Maplewood Mall. The proposal includes tearing down the parking ramp at the Maplewood Mall Transit Center, which was built around 2004, and replacing it with a new parking structure.
Abrams said she is also troubled that the Met Council has not completed and released a post-pandemic ridership study to ensure the Purple Line will be adequately used. The COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of remote work have changed ridership patterns on public transportation.
"We are committed to working with the City of Maplewood and our Purple Line partners to address any questions or concerns that arise through the planning process," according to a statement from Metro Transit Spokesperson Drew Kerr. "As we've indicated previously, a public review and comment period on proposed route modifications will begin in mid-November and continue through the end of the year. No decisions will be made before the end of January."
The move took Ramsey County by surprise. "We were unaware the Maplewood City Council planned to bring forward a discussion around Purple Line support this evening," it said in a statement Monday. "We look forward to connecting with council members in the days ahead to listen to their concerns and discuss potential solutions ahead of the council's Oct. 24 meeting."
In December, the FTA approved moving the Purple Line into the development phase — a key procedural step needed to qualify for federal funding. Ramsey County and the FTA will split the cost.
But in March, a divided White Bear Lake City Council pulled its support of the Purple Line, demanding that it not enter the city. The consent of towns along the route is not required to build the line, Met Council staff said at the time.
The council switched gears and is now studying three alternatives for the northernmost stop: Vadnais Heights, between Hwy. 61 and Interstate 35E near County Road E or Willow Lake Boulevard; the Maplewood Mall Transit Center; or Century College, which straddles White Bear Lake and Mahtomedi.
Service on Metro Transit trains and buses grew steadily to nearly 20 million rides for the first half of 2022 — but that's just over half of what ridership was before COVID-19 broke out more than two years ago.
Still, ridership on the entire system was up 23% from January through the end of June when compared with the first half of 2021. Bus rapid transit line ridership increased by 34% in the first half of 2022, including the Orange and Red lines and the A and C arterial BRT lines.
The Purple Line is the latest Metro Transit project to spark controversy. The $2.7 billion Southwest light-rail project, an extension of the Green Line connecting Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, has been mired in cost overruns and delays — so much so that the state Legislative Auditor has launched an investigation. Meanwhile, the Blue Line light-rail extension connecting Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park has run into community opposition in the Lyn Park neighborhood in north Minneapolis and in Robbinsdale and Crystal.
Not all projects are controversial. The Orange Line BRT is coming up on its first-year anniversary, and the Twin Cities' third arterial bus-rapid transit line, the D Line linking the Mall of America to Brooklyn Center, will begin service in December. More of the popular arterial lines, which operate in traffic, are planned. In the east metro, construction has begun on the Gold Line BRT, which will connect downtown Minneapolis with Woodbury beginning in 2025.