Purple Line bus project hits ‘key milestone’

The 15-mile bus rapid transit route has 21 proposed stops along a corridor from St. Paul to White Bear Lake. 

ST. PAUL — The Purple Line bus-rapid transit (BRT) project, formerly known as the Rush Line, received a nearly $40 million shot in the arm last week from the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners. 

The board committed funding to move the $445 million project into the next development phase under supervision of the Metropolitan Council. 

Before making the motion to support the project’s next stage, Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, a White Bear Lake resident, provided some Rush Line history. She recalled meeting in a downtown coffee shop with a Washington County counterpart in 1997 to talk about public transit in the east metro, which was "nonexistent at that point," she said.  

"We called people together the next year and by the end of 1998, Rush Line had been formed," Reinhardt recalled. At that time, the terminus was Rush City and the mode of transportation was rail, not road. "I remember talking to folks about the Regional Rail Authority right of way and the Bruce Vento Trail and wanting to make sure people understood from the beginning the trail and rail could co-exist. Our commitment has never changed."

When asked back then how long it would take to build, Reinhardt estimated 30 years. "Guess what, by the time this is built, it will be close to that," she said. The commissioner pointed out that immense change has occurred along the 15-mile route during the decades, especially the medical facilities and housing development. "You wouldn’t recognize it," she said of the corridor. "It has changed and I believe for the better."

Calling the Oct. 5 board action a "momentous occasion," Reinhardt iterated that the bus line is a "vital link" for residents and businesses in the east metro. She also thanked its many supporters, noting a "key milestone" had been reached. "We are incredibly excited to move this forward," the commissioner said.

The county’s commitment allows the Metropolitan Council to seek entry into the federal grants program, which will provide about 50% of the capital costs. Ramsey County will cover the rest. 

"Based on today’s estimated costs, the Purple Line is expected to qualify for (federal) funding," said Reinhardt said, adding "the federal government will not fund the project unless everything is lined up." 

Commissioner Nicole Frethem, who represents Vadnais Heights, Gem Lake and White Bear Township, thanked Reinhardt for moving the BRT forward. "This is an important piece of infrastructure and a smart investment. The planning isn’t done yet; we will make sure this project is the right size and scope, but my communities will benefit," she said. "I’m thrilled it’s coming to our community. This is the critical piece for those who care about expanding public transit." 

The five-phase BRT project is currently finishing up its environmental assessment phase. Upon completion, with receipt of an environmental decision and acceptance into the project development phase of the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investments Grants Program as a New Starts project, Rush Line BRT will transition to the Met Council and be rebranded as the Metro Purple Line BRT project. Project leadership is expected to transition from the county to the Met Council in late 2021 or early 2022. 

It will be the fourth BRT line, following the Red, Orange and Gold lines. 

Project development is the first phase of FTA’s New Starts Program, which lasts up to two years. That is followed by engineering and construction phases lead by the Met Council. Bus service is expected to start late 2026.

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