ST. PAUL — The county’s Rush Line Policy Advisory Committee met for possibly the last time July 15, capping years of meetings as representative stakeholders in the mass-transit project. Management of the almost half-billion-dollar bus rapid transit (BRT) project is in the process of transitioning to the Metropolitan Council now that the environmental analysis phase is almost done.
The next step is project development under Met Council guidance. The project will also be rebranded as the Metro Purple Line.
According to Met Council Rush Line BRT Project Director, Craig Lamothe, the process mirrors the 2017 Metro Gold Line BRT, as well as past rail projects. New advisory committees will be formed in 2022, he said, and a new consulting team hired. The county will still be involved with lingering responsibilities over the next several months that include completion of the environmental analysis (EA) phase; completion of the MnDOT and municipal approval process for highway improvements; and making a funding commitment for the project development phase. "That is a key component," he said.
The environmental assessment is now in the hands of the Federal Transit Administration, which will review the document through Aug. 5. A local and federal legal review follow with administrative approval of the environmental assessment due in late September. That determination will be published in the Minnesota "EQB (Environmental Quality Board) Monitor" Oct. 4 and 11. The Federal Highway Administration will make a determination in fall 2021. That federal agency is involved in the environmental review since buses cross I-94.
According to county staff, 184 comments were received from the public regarding the environmental document, mostly online, as well as comment from six government agencies. The comment period closed June 25. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Common themes included questions and concerns on ridership and COVID-19 impacts, project costs, purpose of the project plus traffic and parking impacts. There were also questions about a proposed bus station/park and ride at Hwy. 36 near Harvest Park. Staff explained that a 300-space parking structure will be phased over time starting with a 170-space surface lot. The decision "provides for greatest flexibility as the project advances."
Senior Transportation Planner and Rush Line Project Manager Andy Gitzlaff said public comment is still welcome throughout the process for inclusion in the overall project record.
To submit comments or questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Gitzlaff also encouraged people to go to the website, rushline.org, to view frequently asked questions for answers to communal concerns. Comments on the EA will be published, along with the response, he added, as an appendage to the final environmental assessment document.
Engineer Jim Gersema, with SRF Consulting Group, told PAC members there is continued collaboration on project design issues and that the project is "advancing through the MnDOT process" regarding bridge plans and right of way.
"A lot of work is underway" already at Met Council, which will "aggressively move forward next year with advancement of the development phase," added Lamothe. A request to enter the phase will be submitted to the FTA’s capital investment grant program in August. Approval is anticipated in October.
Also taking place over the next two years is advanced station area planning that involves the half-mile area around stations. County Public Works Planning Specialist Frank Alarcon said the focus is economic development opportunities. The county is leading the effort but city partners have a huge role, he said, as do jurisdictions with land use authority.
PAC member and Maplewood Mayor Marylee Abrams noted she’s getting questions about declines in ridership. "People ask me, ‘why are we still going forward with Rush Line?’"
Gitzlaff reminded her that the bus rapid transit project is a long-term investment. "We look out to 2040. We are seeing good trends on use of frequent, all-day service. There will be a need for transit going forward," he said, adding that 60% of jobs can’t be done remotely.
Gitzlaff pointed out there is flexibility in the system if adjustments must be made, such as using 40-foot buses instead of larger capacity, 60-foot buses.
Before the group adjourned, County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt thanked PAC members for their input. "If this is the last PAC meeting, I want to publicly thank you for the work you’ve done," she said. "You have meticulously guided this process, which started in 1998. Thank you for your service."