The Gold Line bus-rapid transit project was always expected to connect the eastern suburbs to downtown St. Paul.
But in recent weeks, some disagreement has surfaced among transit advocates over where exactly the $420 million line should end in the Capitol city.
Will it be Union Depot, the early 20th-century transportation hub that underwent a $243 million renovation in recent years? Or will the route stretch beyond the depot and loop through downtown St. Paul — an option that would include six additional stops serving some of the city’s major employers and entertainment hot spots?
A Gold Line advisory committee will decide next month which way to go.
The nine-mile line is expected to connect Woodbury to downtown St. Paul, with stops on the city’s East Side, Maplewood, Landfall and Oakdale. Buses will hug Interstate 94 in a dedicated lane for much of the route, making the line the state’s first approximation of true bus-rapid transit. Passenger service is expected to begin in 2024.
Transit planners say the downtown St. Paul loop will add an additional 950 daily riders to a route that is already expected to serve 8,000 passengers daily by 2040. That configuration would cost about $5.8 million and help boost the project’s standing with federal funders. The loop would also include a stop at Union Depot, near the Green Line light-rail station.
St. Paul City Council Member Jane Prince, a member of the Gold Line Corridor Management Committee (CMC), favors this option.
“East metro and East Side transit riders should be able to reach their downtown destination on one ticket,” she said. “If you have to wait for a connection, then people may just take their car.”
Ending the line at Union Depot would require passengers to walk through the terminal to catch the Green Line or myriad local buses to make their connections. Or, they could simply walk to their destination downtown.
At a committee meeting Thursday, Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough favored this route. He noted that Union Depot was intended to be an “intermodal transit hub” — where transportation connections are “seamless.”
Likewise, Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega worried that buses traversing a loop in city traffic would cause delays in Gold Line service due to “the continual growth of downtown.”
Ending the route at Union Depot could affect the project’s rating with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which is expected to pay nearly half the project’s cost, according to transit planners. The FTA uses a complicated formula that considers a number of factors, including potential ridership to rate projects throughout the country.
Ortega and McDonough asked staff from the Metropolitan Council, which is planning the Gold Line, to further hone ridership figures before the Nov. 1 meeting.
Maplewood Mayor Nora Slawik said she favored the downtown loop, partly because she feared federal funders would penalize the project if it wasn’t included as part of the line’s route. “I don’t think we can jeopardize the project,” she said.
Washington County Commissioner Stan Karwoski said he supported the loop, but didn’t want the “ultimate decision to come between the two counties.” In an apparent reference to the controversial Southwest light-rail project, which is planned to connect downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie, he said, “We don’t want to be like the west metro.”