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Buses get early nod in I-94 transit study

The concept of high-speed buses on Interstate 94 is rising to the top.

Officials on Thursday shared findings that show two options for bus rapid-transit as the most preferred among a slate of possibilities an east metro panel has been studying for more than a year.

One of the two preferred options calls for high speed buses to operate in a bus-only lane out of St. Paul that would also run down the I-94 median, where possible. That option comes with a projected $420 million price tag.

The other preferred option, with a $590 million cost estimate, proposes a managed lane on I-94 that would be accessible for high-speed buses and other high-occupancy vehicles.

Woodbury Mayor and Gateway Corridor Commission Member Mary Giuliani Stephens was among those who supported the ascension of bus rapid-transit (BRT) to the top.

"The more I learn about BRT, I'm liking the flexibility of it," she said.

Supporters of BRT plans said proposed routes create an infrastructure that could one day be utilized by light rail. If that comes to pass someday, "the system's in place to do it," Stephens said.

Members of the Gateway Corridor Commission met Thursday at Woodbury City Hall, where they approved a plan to roll out the ranked options to the public through a series of open houses.

Thursday's announcement highlighted the top choices - compiled by a research team with input from commissioners and the public - and kept all but one option left on the table: commuter rail, a possibility that commissioners voted out after seeing its $1.23 billion price tag and extensive hurdles it faced.

"This is just stupid," St. Paul City Council Member and Gateway Commissioner Kathy Lantry said of the commuter rail option. "We have to make some decisions, for goodness sakes."

Commissioners decided information on commuter rail should be presented at the meetings, so long as it is understood that it no longer is on the table.

Besides the two favored high-speed bus choices, the remaining options in play are bus rapid-transit that includes stops in St. Paul neighborhoods and two light rail options.

Also in play is the so-called "no build" option, which leaves things as they are and is mandated to be part of the study.

Those transit possibilities - even those with lower rankings - will be presented at open houses as active options, however.

That scenario caused some consternation among commissioners at the meeting who wondered if including the lower-ranked options might do more harm than good.

"I think it's a lot to absorb for folks," Lantry said, adding that additional confusion could emerge by examining some lower-ranked plans, which call for more property acquisitions along those routes.

Though commissioners signed off on plans for the open-house presentations, some continued to call for a simplification of what will be shown to the public.

"This doesn't seem to drive to a conclusion that's easy to wrap your head around," said Greg Watson, an ex-officio commissioner representing the Woodbury Chamber of Commerce, urging presentations that describe the impact and the flexibility.

Lisa Weik, a Washington County commissioner and chairwoman of the Gateway panel, said the idea behind the thorough presentation was to illustrate the data and research that went into the results.

"I want the public to see what our thought process has been," she said.

Washington County Transportation Manager Ted Schoenecker said he heeded the commissioners' recommendations.

"We will do our best to try and streamline it," he said.

The options fell into three categories: "high," "medium" and "low."

The managed lane and the Hudson Road/I-94 BRT options were categorized as "high."

The "no build" option and a projected $980 million light rail option fell into the "medium" ranking.

Three options received "low" rankings in the study, beginning with the BRT option through St. Paul neighborhoods. That received lower marks due to the number of property acquisitions, traffic impacts and transit time.

Also receiving a "low" ranking was light rail through east St. Paul neighborhoods - an option that was flagged for its $1.28 billion cost, property acquisition possibilities and traffic impact.

The last "low" option was commuter rail, which in addition to its price tag, sank due to its projected ridership and minimal opportunity for economic development.

Moving forward, the commission will seek out data from other cities - likely including Kansas City, Mo. - that currently have BRT systems in place. That study will be used in hopes of offsetting what Weik called "LRT bias" of lawmakers who are knowledgeable about light rail transit, but not high-speed buses. Minnesota has yet to implement its first high speed bus line, though one is scheduled to go live in the south metro.

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

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