WHITE BEAR LAKE — As Rush Line committee members plow through maps and stats, three locations are emerging as best options for bus stations.
Actually, only one, downtown, is a station. The other two, at Marina Triangle and Cedar Avenue, are bus platforms. They will have amenities like shelter, light, heat, fare payment machines and real-time departure signs.
The 14-mile Rush Line route from Union Depot in St. Paul to downtown White Bear Lake will provide bus service seven days a week from early a.m. to late p.m. Buses will arrive in 15 minute increments, or every 10 minutes during rush hour and conveniently connect to the Metro Green Line and Amtrak service at Union Depot.
A 20-person advisory committee is studying where the stations should be located and what they will look like. In the next six to nine months, the team is going to focus on environmental work and engineering. There will be opportunity for public input on their recommendations.
Stations (more like platforms) at Marina Triangle and Cedar Avenue were topics of the committee’s Aug. 14 meeting at City Hall. The downtown station was discussed at an earlier meeting in June. Rising to the top as the preferred downtown location: U.S. Bank on Clark Avenue and Second Street.
Station No. 1 downtown
A downtown station at Clark Avenue and Second Street offers a convenient loop route for buses to turn around. It keeps traffic from the busier Fourth Street site under consideration. Plus the bank may be willing to sell the space.
“Banks change; they don’t need as much space anymore,” noted Don Arambula, a transit master planner from Portland, Oregon. “It also fits a parking structure.”
Arambula’s firm, Crandall Arambula, is part of a team working under contract with the county. They specialize in bus rapid transit.
Task force member Sheila Kelly, an attorney representing the Area Chamber of Commerce, said the U.S. Bank was her top choice. The task force also considered a station at the Fourth Street parcel owned by the city now a parking lot and two businesses (Burger Bar and White Bear Bar), and on the current Post Office site between Banning and Cook Avenues.
Rush Line project manager Andy Gitzlaff, a county senior transportation planner, said a 280-stall ramp at the bank site would solve some of the parking issues downtown.
“There are more advantages to that location such as creation of a transit plaza,” he pointed out. “This group was drawn to that option.”
Nothing is yet cast in stone at this point. Gitzlaff wants residents to know the options are draft concepts.
Station No. 2 Marina Triangle
The Marina Triangle station will have a north and south bound platform along Highway 61, in front of the Meet Market.
SRF Engineer Jim Gersema is the lead on the project and helps vet the locations. Platforms would be situated on existing MnDOT right of way, he said, but there could be “potential impacts to the Meet Market property.”
It was noted that 80 percent of people who use transit take a 5-minute walk so safe and direct access routes are especially important. A Hwy. 61 crossing at Whitaker Street would connect the platforms. A walkway on the west side would lead to the future Bruce Vento Trail along Lincoln Avenue.
A park and ride on city property next to the old public works west of Hwy. 61 could also provide 100 parking spaces for users who walk to the platform.
More Boatworks Commons-like housing, parking structures and retail development on the site of the White Bear Shopping Center are part of the vision.
Arambula said an early conversation with Kowalski’s discussed reorienting a new 30,000-square-foot grocery store to face the highway. “They are interested but non-committal,” he said, noting the grocery store is a key concern. “One of the greatest generators for transit are grocery stores,” he added.
Planners would also like amenities like a coffee shop with eyes on the station so people could wait in a warm place on a snowy night.
Former city manager and task force member Mark Sather said crossing Hwy. 61 is “a big issue” for the platform location. He agreed Kowalski’s is an asset to the community and a great draw but the owner of the White Bear Shopping Center, Ron Tract, “is not highly motivated to do anything.”
Sather pointed out the food shelf is on the city property south of Whitaker next to the proposed parking lot. The impact to their location “should not be minimalized,” he said. “It needs to be on the list.”
All development is contingent on the property owners, the market and the city, noted Gitzlaff. “Our focus is on the platforms, pedestrian and traffic improvements to make the Whitaker crossing work.
Station No. 3 at Cedar Avenue
The Cedar station will have both north and south bound platforms at grade on the east side of Hwy. 61.
“It is apparent the majority of users live on the north side,” Gersema said. “We want to limit how many crossings pedestrians need to make. With both platforms on one side, we only have to cross the roadway once in one direction.” Six buses an hour would stop at the platform for an average of 14 seconds to let passengers on and off.
This platform would also be wider, 20 feet vs. 12 feet, to provide more of a buffer from a “hostile freeway environment.”
More housing and retail here, too, is desirable with high density residential shown on the northwest quadrant near Hoffman Road and commercial development shown on the southwest quadrant. “We need just enough commercial to activate the station,” noted Arambula.
Timeline for project
The federal transit administration timeline shows a 12-year process with construction to start in 2024. The Rush Line project is currently in the two-year environmental analysis phase. This phase advances project design with emphasis on the stations and “thoughtful planning for new development” near them. The analysis will result in a document that explains why the project is needed, alternatives considered, impacts to natural and built environments and mitigation strategies for those impacts.
Project development will take two years, final engineering will take two years and then construction starts. It’s expected to take three years to build.