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Washington County vote extends commuter bus service from Forest Lake

Washington County commissioners voted Sept. 23 to fund the continuation of a commuter bus route from Forest Lake to Minneapolis through the end of the year.

But before county commissioners agreed to provide $45,000 towards maintaining the route Tuesday, they wanted to find out if neighboring counties were willing to pitch in their fair share.

Metro Transit, which has been running Route No. 288 since January with federal dollars it received upon the I-35W bridge collapse on Aug. 1, 2007, told Washington County last week that it needed to pitch-in to keep the service running after Oct. 1.

Why? Federal funding for the route ended last week as the bridge officially opened to traffic Thursday, Sept. 18.

Although the route has only been running since January, many of its riders have said they want to keep it operating permanently.

The Met Council said it would fund the cost to keep the route running through Oct. 1, and said that it would split the additional $180,000 it would cost to run through the end of the year with Washington, Anoka and Chisago counties. But only if each county agreed to pony up their share of the funding.

Although the No. 288 bus route takes off from Forest Lake, a large portion of its commuters come from surrounding communities that are just outside northern Washington County.

Residents from communities like Chisago City and Columbus have contributed to the capacity bus route, said Washington County public works official Mike Rogers.

At its Sept. 16 meeting the board held off a vote to provide $45,000 in funding until it knew whether Chisago and Anoka counties would be chipping in as well.

The board was apprised Sept. 23 that Columbus, Chisago City and Forest Lake are working on plans to also provide $45,000 each for funding the route.

Ultimately, the combined $180,000 will only provide service for the bus route through the end of the year.

Commissioners were unsure last week whether the county should be paying to extend the services through the end of the year, because they were unsure whether the services should be extend to next year as well. According to Rogers, the operating costs to keep the bus running in 2009 could exceed $500,000, and that's after a likely fare increase of two dollars, from $2.75 to $4.75.

The other issues surrounding whether to continue the bus service included the fact that none of the communities benefiting from the bus service are inside the metro area transit taxing district.

Rogers said at the Sept. 16 meeting that Forest Lake was looking into the possibility of becoming a part of the taxing district, which would allow it to more easily access Metro Transit funding.