Late last week Senators Susan Kent, D-Woodbury and Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, along with Representatives JoAnn Ward-D-Woodbury and Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, jointly penned a commentary for MinnPost urging legislators to approve initial funding for the $485 million Gateway Corridor bus rapid transit project. Also called the Gold line, the project is a 12-mile dedicated bus road that will run from Union station in St. Paul to Woodbury with twelve stops along the way. Alpha News reported on the project last month.
The half-a-billion-dollar dedicated bus road was highlighted by President Obama during his trip to Minnesota last spring and has the support of local Chambers of Commerce. Chief Author in the House Rep Fenton, has touted the bipartisan plan and needs $3 million from state taxpayers to move it forward. Much like the Southwest Light Rail Transitway, the total projected cost of the Gateway Corridor has ballooned– from $400 million in 2014 to $485 million today. The four east metro legislators warned in MinnPost that the cost could go up again if there is no action this session. Once the initial $3 million is approved, 45% of the funding would come from the federal government, 45% from the counties, and 10% from the state. Total cost to taxpayers in Minnesota is estimated to be $267 Million, not including the ongoing operation costs paid for by Metro Transit.
According to a survey conducted by the City of Woodbury in March, 52% of residents said they were “not too likely” or “not at all likely” to use bus rapid transit, while 47% or residents said they were “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to use the service. Only 22% of residents wanted the city to focus more on expanded mass transit options when asked about “sustainable activities.” Only 21% or residents listed a commute time of over thirty minutes, down from 26% in 2001. 90% of Woodbury commuters said they drive alone, while 5% ride the bus. Travel time for the entire twelve mile route is estimated to be thirty minutes. Current Metro Transit express bus service from Woodbury to downtown St. Paul is 25-29 minutes. Current express bus service allows commuter to ride to downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis without stopping, while the Gateway line would require riders transfer at Union Station to board light rail.
Ward, Fenton, Housley, and Kent stated that current express bus service is popular but doesn’t meet the area’s needs and cited the example of the former State Farm campus in Woodbury sitting empty for ten years, while State Farm is now building a new regional office in Dallas at a transit station with the implication being that lack of sufficient transit is what drove the insurance company out of Minnesota. State Farm moved its Woodbury operations to Nebraska in 2006 and has since been consolidating jobs to regional hubs in Phoenix, Atlanta, and Dallas. The Woodbury city council recently approved a plan for the empty State Farm site which will be redeveloped to include office space, a Residence Inn hotel, a Whole Foods grocery store, restaurants, and retail to be known as “City Place.”
The MinnPost commentary cited Met Council numbers that the corridor’s population will will grow by 40% by 2030 and that jobs will grow by 70%. It also cited the fact that I-94 has no plans for expansion. Legislators could lobby for an additional lane to meet the needs of 90% of Woodbury residents who commute via car and the 5% who use current bus service at a much lower cost. The lane being added to six miles along 494 in Plymouth is being done at a cost of $86 million per MNDOT.
The $3 million in state funding to move the Gateway corridor project forward was not included in the House omnibus transportation bill, but could show up in final budget negotiations. Rep Ward was quoted in the Woodbury Bulletin in late April regarding the project: “What we do know is if we don’t get this money this session that we lose our federal match.”
The Transportation conference committee will meet late today to continue to debate and consolidate House and Senate transportation plans. Conference committee co-chair Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, was a co-sponsor on the initial Senate funding bill for the Gateway Corridor project. Sen Kent and Sen Foung Hawj, D-St. Paul, were also co-sponsors and are serving on the conference committee as well.
$3 million is a pittance compared to transportation bills ranging from $7-$11 billion, but the cost to state and federal taxpayers for a bus service that won’t trim commute times is no drop-in-the-bucket.