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Gold Line moves to Woodbury, Oakdale city councils

What Lake Elmo didn't want may be Woodbury and Oakdale's gain, as the two cities move to pledge their support of the Gold Line bus-rapid transit (BRT) project.

When Lake Elmo voted to opt out of the Gold Line project earlier this year, planners were left scrambling to find an alternative route. After a dozen or so ideas for an alternative, officials identified the most feasible route would connect Woodbury and Oakdale on Helmo Avenue/Bielenberg Drive that crosses over Interstate 94 and ends at Woodbury Village.

Woodbury and Oakdale officials will consider resolutions for the new plan later this month, all but solidifying the final route.

Previously

In Woodbury, items on the resolution include supporting the existing express bus system that services Woodbury, feeder bus systems, safety, station designs development of structured parking, and support of east metro transportation investments as a whole. The council will review the resolution at its Nov. 30 meeting.

The Gold Line would connect Union Depot in downtown St. Paul and the East Side passing through Maplewood, Landfall, Oakdale and Woodbury near I-94. Buses will travel on bus-only lanes through most of the route, and passengers pay their fares before boarding the bus. The concept of dedicated bus lanes would be the first of its kind in Minnesota.

Planners also unveiled the project's costs Nov. 16, which they estimate will be closer to $420 million, a reduction of $65 million from the Gold Line's original price tag.

Funding for the project likely would remain the same, with federal dollars and local sales tax covering 45 percent and 35 percent of costs, respectively. Ramsey and Washington counties would also pitch in 5 percent and the remaining 10 percent would come from the state.

Though a number of residents have criticized the project's costs, among other issues like negative effects on property value and increased crime rates, written comments favoring and opposing the new route have been about 60-40 in the past month, Washington County Planner Lyssa Leitner said.

Peter Grasse, a retired 3M Co. employee who lives in Woodbury, said express bus operations provide limited transit options because they only run during the morning and evening rush hours and make few stops along the way.

"We're living in a transit wasteland," Grasse said. "We can't get from Woodbury to anywhere unless you're taking the express bus (and) that destination works for you and those times work for you."

Some skeptics have asked whether metro transit couldn't operate more express buses during the day, but according to Metropolitan Council Transitway Planning Manager Craig Lamothe, express buses and BRT are, in many ways, two different concepts.

Though a longer trip, Lamothe said BRT tends to strike a balance between express bus and local bus routes, because commuters have the option to stay late or leave early. According to the Gold Line's planners, the buses would arrive every 10 to 15 minutes during peak hours, and every half-hour during the day and evening up until midnight.

"With these corridors, when you put this type of service in there, very few people are riding it end to end, so you're serving those intermediate stops," Lamothe said, adding that surveys of projects like the Blue Line and Green Line light rails indicate a trend.

Express buses that, for example, travel from Woodbury to downtown Minneapolis tend to leave full, but if they run back along the same route, they'd likely be empty, which would drive up operating costs, Lamothe added.

If Oakdale and Woodbury city councils approve resolutions, the next steps for the Gold Line includes a two-year engineering phase, followed by three years of construction.

Planners anticipate the line will begin operating in 2023.

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