Next up for the Rush Line Bus Rapid Transit project is May publication of the long-awaited Environmental Assessment for review by the Federal Transit Administration.
Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt is hoping the 100-plus-page document will help answer questions and quell public misperceptions about the $457 million project, which is currently in its two-year environmental analysis phase. Construction is expected to start in four years.
The phase identifies where the electric buses will have their own lanes or operate in mixed traffic, determines how the Rush Line and Bruce Vento Trail will share the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority right of way, determines benefits and impacts on low-income and/or minority communities, and strategizes ways to avoid or minimize negative impacts.
Negative impacts from the BRT, particularly to downtown White Bear Lake, are something residents have been expressing of late in letters to the editor in the White Bear Press.
That printed opposition was pointed out by a Rush Line Policy Advisory Committee (PAC) member at a Zoom meeting last week.
“There is brewing dissent,” noted Sheila Kelly, a local attorney who represents the White Bear Area Chamber of Commerce on the committee. She wondered if county staff planned any meetings in White Bear to field growing questions about the project.
At this point, nothing is scheduled, said Planning Specialist Frank Alarcon, deputy project manager, adding that staff always responds to emails and comments placed online.
White Bear Township Supervisor Scott McCune is also a PAC member. He agreed with Kelly, suggesting that some kind of public engagement be scheduled downtown, perhaps during Marketfest, to address project concerns.
Commissioner Reinhardt commented that opinions like those expressed in letters to the editor are “always welcomed,” but “there are some things that are not accurate.
“It seems like we should do something to correct misperceptions,” she added. Kelly suggested that talking points be compiled for purposes of engagement. The commissioner agreed, asking staff to review the letters and provide talking points to everyone on the committee, not just those who reside in White Bear.
Reinhardt, who lives in White Bear Lake, said she appreciated Kelly’s suggestions and believes people will learn more when the environmental assessment is released. She also reminded the committee that the decision to move forward with the project is not a decision by the city of White Bear Lake or Ramsey County. “This will transition to the Met Council (fall/winter 2021), where decisions about funding will take place,” Reinhardt said.
Another PAC member, Susan Vento, Met Council District 11 representative, whose late husband is Congressman Bruce Vento, agreed that “it’s crucial to get the facts out.” She suggested identifying supporters of Rush Line to counter the negative letters.
“I have to believe there are people looking forward to this link and what it will mean in their lives,” Vento said. “Yes, the pandemic has posed questions for everyone. But we need to keep going; we are on the right track here.”
Supervisor McCune was candid when asked if he hears from constituents who support the project. “No one has grabbed me by the arm to say they ‘like the project’ outside of the group (PAC),” he told the Press. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t support.”
Questions about ridership in a post-COVID-19 world should be reviewed, McCune stressed. “Have habits changed enough to call into question the projections?” he asked. “That can’t be ignored.”
Asked if the momentum to date signals Rush Line will reach completion, McCune replied: “I won’t say it can’t be stopped, but there are a lot of federal dollars moving the project along. It has a life of its own. There does need to be more effort in soliciting and weighing public input.”
Publication of the environmental assessment (target date is May 11) is considered a major milestone in the project timeline. It will be followed by a 45-day public comment period after which Ramsey County, in collaboration with the FTA, will respond to comments.
County staff assured that public meetings, held virtually and potentially in person, will be held as part of the environmental analysis phase in late May or early June. Once dates are confirmed, they will be shared with the Press.
Following staff updates on the assessment and landscape design, a brief engineering update and the historic resource process, people watching the meeting were allowed three minutes of commentary.
A White Bear resident raising her hand was Cindy Bloom, who introduced herself as one of the letter writers. She requested the committee stay “curious and engaged” on the project’s impact to communities along the route. “At any point, especially due to significant changes from COVID, is there opportunity to relook at data points?” she asked. “Facts should be reassessed. Sometimes it requires a pull-back; like the number of buses running 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. People have contacted me saying they feel the same way and don’t feel their voice is being heard. It feels like we can make a comment, but you’re not going to do anything about it. Like you’re already locked and loaded to push the project through.”
Greg Lees, another Press letter writer, questioned the efficacy of Rush Line buses into downtown, “crowding traffic lanes next to a brand-new high school that will generate traffic of its own.” He noted that the original concept was a rail line to Rush City (hence the name) “that morphed into this.”
Lees felt widening a hiking and biking trail for buses makes no sense and that “ridership on public transportation is tanking. I’m hoping citizens come together and stop it from coming into White Bear Lake.”
At the meeting’s start, Reinhardt said White Bear Lake Mayor Jo Emerson, who chairs the PAC, was not feeling well and asked to be excused. “But she is excited about the work,” added the commissioner.
Newly elected Vice Chair Nelsie Yang, a St. Paul City Council Member, led the meeting.
Anyone wishing to comment about the project should send an email to email@example.com. The PAC next meets July 15.