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Woodbury public transit riders face challenges

More than a dozen people board the 351 express bus, which makes its first stop at the Woodbury Lutheran Church. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)1 / 2
Liam Powell and Paul Swanlund wait to board a St. Paul-bound express bus on a cold, windy March morning in Woodbury. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)2 / 2

Not having a car in Woodbury is tough, and Liam Powell knows it.

He stopped driving after suffering a head injury, and getting to his job in downtown St. Paul can be frustrating when the shuttle service misses the express bus by a few minutes. On cold or rainy days, the shelter at the Woodbury Lutheran Park and Ride offers little protection from the elements as he waits sometimes up to 30 minutes for the next bus.

"It has no front door. It has no wall, so when it rains you're getting soaked, and when it's snowy you get snowed on," Powell said. "It's no better than standing under an umbrella. For those of us who are dropped off, we're just stuck there."

On an eight below zero morning in January, he and about 20 people stood around the park and ride station as the 351 express bus idled empty a few blocks away when it arrived early. Powell said the driver told riders they could wait in their cars next time, which isn't an option for him.

Concerns like these are sparking conversations for officials in Washington County following a 2016 survey revealing that residents felt the ease of using public transit was the highest problem in their communities.

According to the survey, Washington County residents gave public transit options an average rating of 52 on a 100-point scale. Availability of public transportation rated even lower, earning a 34 out of 100 rating.

A recent U.S. Census report also shows that roughly 84 percent of Woodbury residents said they drove alone to get to work. Approximately 3 percent noted they use public transit — though that figure has a 10 percent margin of error, according to the report.

For people who don't drive, getting to a bus line requires hailing a ride from someone or using services, such as Metro Mobility or Transit Link, which operate in areas without bus routes.

But for Maureen Brown, who used Transit Link because she shares a car with her husband, the shuttle's service isn't always consistent, she said.

She leaves her home near St. Ambrose of Woodbury Church two hours early to get to connected to the bus that brings her to her Minneapolis job.

"There's no guarantee when I'll get to work," she said, adding that on days when the shuttle is busy, she's sometimes dropped off at the Park and Ride in St. Paul Park.

The shuttles are also not able to run in Washington County before 6 a.m., which Powell said has caused it to arrive as the express bus is pulling away.

Getting home during the day because of an emergency is also a challenge since express buses don't run during the day, Powell said. On days when the school nurse calls because his child gets sick, his wife is the only person who can handle it.

With the construction of the Gold Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line, planners for the project have said express bus users would have a way to get back to Woodbury if they need to leave early or stay at work late.

The project would connect St. Paul to Woodbury as buses travel along dedicated lanes along near Interstate 94. Buses would arrive at stations all day every 10 to 12 minutes in St. Paul, Maplewood, Landfall and Woodbury.

Planners anticipate the Gold Line would open in 2021 if all goes to plan, though the line would unlikely be a quicker option compared to express buses.

While Powell said he feels the Gold Line would help transit-only riders, some of his bus rider friends have told him they'd like to see improvements to the express bus system first.

Others have been cautious of the project's $420 million estimated price tag and uncertainty that the line will see many riders.

As part of the city's agreement to let the project move forward, the Woodbury City Council laid out a number of stipulations including continued support for existing express bus service and the creation of additional lines that will connect with BRT stations.

When Powell bought his Woodbury home in the 1990s, he said a part of the selling point was a nearby bus route that ran along Afton Road to where he catches the express bus. The line has since been closed and was replaced by shuttle service.

Despite the inconveniences and the hour-and-a-half-long commute, Powell said he's made a number of friends who share his frustration while using Transit Link.

"At least we're in it together," he said.