In an unusual step, the Met Council and an advisory committee have acknowledged White Bear Lake's opposition to the Purple Line bus rapid transit project by agreeing to consider alternative routes that would have the line end elsewhere.
The options are to run the line either to Vadnais Heights or to Maplewood Mall — and each possibility would cost millions less than the current $475 million price tag because it would result in a shorter line.
The Purple Line's sudden pivot "is a little unprecedented," project manager Craig Lamothe said, though it's not totally unheard of: Lake Elmo officials rejected the Gold Line bus rapid transit project in 2016, causing that route to end in Woodbury instead.
The Purple Line Corridor Management Committee could also simply stay the course and endorse the current plan. The committee's recommendation for the Met Council and the Ramsey County Board is expected this summer.
As currently planned, the 15-mile Purple Line — formerly known as the Rush Line — would connect Union Depot in downtown St. Paul with White Bear Lake. It would serve St. Paul's East Side, Maplewood, Vadnais Heights, Gem Lake and White Bear Township.
The route was selected by Ramsey County officials in 2017, after nearly two decades of discussion and planning. The line originally was slated to run all the way north to Hinckley through Rush City, but its scope has been pared back over the years.
In December, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) approved moving the project into the development phase — an important step needed to qualify for federal funding. The FTA and Ramsey County will split the cost to build the line.
An FTA spokeswoman cited the Bottineau Blue Line light-rail project as an example of a project sponsor choosing to alter an alignment at this stage. The route for the Blue Line extension between downtown Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park was changed because the Met Council couldn't reach an agreement with BNSF Railway to share much of the right-of-way.
Animus over the Purple Line has lingered in White Bear Lake for years. It culminated with November's election, when opponents of the bus rapid transit project secured a majority on the City Council.
"We knew something would happen then," said Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, a longtime White Bear Lake resident who supports the Purple Line.
In March, the White Bear Lake City Council approved a nonbinding resolution opposing the Purple Line. The city can't stop the project; unlike light-rail projects, state law does not require municipalities along a bus rapid transit line to first approve the route. However, Reinhardt said, "We had to take the resolution seriously."
White Bear Lake Council Member Bill Walsh, who serves on the Corridor Management Committee, said the project has evolved in fits and starts over the years without any broader community conversation about whether enhanced transit was a good idea for the city.
"The election was a pretty good citywide discussion, and that led to the vote in March," he said.
Walsh said that many White Bear Lake residents believe that the bus infrastructure, the number of buses and all that comes with it would ruin the city's small-town feel. Under the current Purple Line plan, 89 buses would serve White Bear Lake daily.
So, transit planners have suggested ending the Purple Line in Vadnais Heights, at Hwy. 61 and County Road E near the TCO Sports Garden complex, or at Interstate 35E and County Road E — either along County Road E or Willow Lake Boulevard. Depending on the choice, the options could save between $15 million and $55 million.
Another alternative would end the line at the Maplewood Mall Transit Center, an option that would pare $80 million to $100 million from the project's budget — though it would also mean 700 to 1,100 fewer projected daily passengers.
All options call for a "Purple Line Connector" to run between the mall and downtown White Bear Lake, with fewer buses running along White Bear Avenue or Buerkle Road.
In some ways, the pivot is due to pragmatism. While the Met Council doesn't need municipal consent from White Bear Lake to proceed, it does have to work with city technical staffers, acquire public property and right-of-way in the city and secure necessary approvals and permits to build the line. Lamothe, the project manager, said that could be challenging.
"We have a project partner that has become an unwilling project partner," he said.