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Feds to Gateway officials: Reconsider managed lane

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Washington County planners have resubmitted documents to a federal agency after officials there demanded a discarded transit option be given a second look.

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The county received two letters between March and April asking for Gateway Corridor planners to revisit the possibility of a bus-rapid transit (BRT) managed lane alternative as the project moves ahead. Planners in 2013 whittled the transit options to two – a dedicated BRT transitway that hugs Hudson Road or light rail through the same corridor.

The managed lane option called for a center lane to be constructed in the median between the eastbound and westbound Interstate 94 traffic lanes. BRT buses would operate in the lane, which would also allow passenger vehicles via a toll system.

Projections place the managed lane option’s $520 million cost between BRT ($400 million) and LRT ($920 million).

The Gateway project wrapped its scoping process in April and is poised to narrow down plans in September, when the Gateway Corridor Commission is expected to select a transit mode and the preferred alignment.

Requests made by the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Highway Administration to revisit the managed lane option have not slowed the process, said Jan Lucke, a transit and planning manager for Washington County.

She said Gateway planners gathered additional data on the managed lane option and sent it to FTA officials in response to the request.

“We’re waiting to hear from them,” Lucke said, adding that Gateway planners are “optimistic” that the data will satisfy FTA officials.

The project’s alternatives analysis phase gave “careful” consideration to the managed lane option, Lucke said, though the process has moved forward without it in the mix.

“Right now we’re comfortable looking at the BRT and LRT options moving forward,” she said.

Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik said the managed lane was largely shelved because it would not have been eligible for a key federal funding source. Weik, who also chairs the Gateway Corridor Commission, said the managed lane option would have been eligible for a smaller federal funding package that would only go toward the construction of transit stations, but not for lane construction.

“The lack of an identified federal funding source is a big deal,” Weik said, noting that a dedicated BRT or LRT transitway would be eligible for federal New Starts funding. “If we don’t secure that, then we’ll be looking to local property owners.”

Also working against the managed lane was the commission’s alternatives analysis, which concluded that the position of its stations – in the center of the interstate – would yield fewer economic development opportunities.

Weik noted ridership projections for the managed lane option were lower than they were for the Hudson Road project.

However, a March 10 letter from FHA Division Administrator Derrell Turner states it would be “in the public’s best interest” for Gateway planners to carry a managed lane option along as it moves into the draft environmental impact statement process.

In his letter, Turner outlines how the managed lane option achieves the project’s purpose with “fewer adverse impacts.”

The letter also cites concerns over whether limited right-of-way along Hudson Road near I-94 would accommodate future capacity expansion. The potential wear and tear on interstate ramps “due to the interaction with the facilities under consideration” is also among concerns noted by Turner.

Gateway commissioners in September are expected to make a number of key decisions. One mode – BRT, LRT or, possibly, managed lane – will be determined, though the process allows other modes to be studied for comparative purposes in the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS).

While Turner’s letter terms the federal request a “determination,” an April 9 letter from FTA Regional Administrator Marisol Simon contained stronger language.

“The FTA will require Washington County to analyze the BRT-managed lane alternative in the DEIS,” a portion of the letter states.

The FTA is required to evaluate all reasonable alternatives as part of its review of environmental requirements. According to the FTA, the commission continues to deem the managed lane option as a reasonable alternative for Gateway.

Weik said she is not discouraged by Simon’s letter. She said it’s likely the Gateway process will now move ahead with the third option in play, at least – though not in the lead.

“I think that’s a strong possibility,” she said. “I’m not concerned with doing that.”

Weik said that’s because while data continue to suggest the BRT corridor along Hudson Road is the strongest model, she sees vetting the merits of additional options as a step toward strengthening the process. Local officials will be better able to defend a final selection after it has undergone a rigorous and robust study – and comparison.

That, Weik said, is what the federal agencies would like to see as well.

“I think they want to make sure our study is as robust as possible,” she said. “I don’t think it hurts anything to have additional comparisons.”

Also to be determined by Gateway commissioners is the route, which departs St. Paul north of I-94. Commissioners will decide whether the line continues on the north side of the highway as it continues on toward Manning Avenue or if it will cross south into Woodbury.

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Mike Longaecker
Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker
(715) 426-1072
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