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Input sought on future transit

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Hundreds of southeast metro commuters are part of a growing trend, leaving their cars behind each morning to board express buses closer to home and bypass the hassle and frustration of rush hour traffic.

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Transit advocates dream one day those passengers will jump on commuter trains by the thousands, but increasing bus ridership is key to making Red Rock Corridor rail reality -- and one county planner said that's easier said than done facing a cash-strapped Metro Transit and comparatively inconvenient schedule.

In a motor vehicle-dominated metropolitan area, nearly 140 commuters use the park and ride express between Cottage Grove and St. Paul each morning and afternoon; just more than 225 board the bus to Minneapolis making their way to work and back.

Those ridership numbers are part of a computer model that projects 1,600 daily riders of the proposed Red Rock commuter rail line running from St. Paul to Hastings, but Washington County transportation planner Mike Rogers says that figure likely needs to double for the southeast metro corridor to be perceived as cost-effective by state and federal officials.

A big part of that process, Rogers said, is expanding the daily express bus ridership, and the key to multiplying those figures is increasing the frequency of buses.

Currently, it's one bus every 30 minutes during morning and afternoon peak hours with limited mid-day service. That, Rogers said, isn't convenient enough for most.

"Once (buses are coming every 15 minutes) people don't have to schedule anymore, they can just show up," Rogers said. "And that's one of the biggest barriers to using transit."

But the issue of adding buses, like most everything, comes down to money.

Metro Transit, even on its most popular routes, has been unable to increase the frequency of buses. Money is tight and planning for future corridor growth like Red Rock isn't in the cards, Rogers said.

"A lot of that has to do with they're just so strapped for money and they can only look at today," not the needs of tomorrow, Rogers said.

Washington County commuters and businesses will have the chance to meet with county officials and discuss what transit improvements are needed over the next decade, whether it be a rail system, improved bus service or expanded roadways.

The open house was originally scheduled for this week, but has been postponed due to a technical problem at the Washington County Government Center in Cottage Grove. The new date of the event was not available at the Bulletin's press time.

'Behind the curve'

Transportation advocates were thrilled about the prospect of $1.17 billion in mass transit funding over the next decade included in a transportation plan proposed by Democratic lawmakers last week. Now they just have to hope it survives.

The multi-billion dollar comprehensive transportation package likely faces a date with the veto pen of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in its current form.

But Rogers is holding out hope lawmakers can work it out, saying it would be "a huge step" toward providing the state with the cash to make a reality the vision of a metro area teeming with commuter rail and expanded bus service -- known collectively as transit corridors.

The bill "allows us to build a lot of transit corridors and beef up the bus systems," a necessity to building a base of rail ridership in the southeast metro, Rogers said, and also "allows us to have a dedicated funding source so we're not going after bonds all the time."

Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators proposed Twin Cities rail and bus projects be funded by a half-cent sales tax increase in the seven-county metro area; out-state counties could hike taxes for specific transportation projects, but those would be subject to voter approval.

A number of Republican lawmakers, Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, among them, have said they will not support a bill that doesn't allow citizens a vote on the tax increases.

Many similar-sized metro areas around the country are already expanding their transit systems, cities like Salt Lake City, Phoenix and specifically Denver, Rogers said. Minnesota is "behind the curve" in using the sales tax to fund regional transit systems like the proposed Red Rock Corridor, he said.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute's latest Urban Mobility Report, the average Twin Cities rush hour commuter spends 43 hours and $790 per year delayed on congested highways. That, the report says, adds up to more than $1 billion in costs due to traffic backups each year.

Rogers said lawmakers, as well as commuters, need to view light rail, commuter rail and express bus services as part of the solution to the metro's growing glut of rush hour traffic.

"I think it's an understanding that really it's a system of transportation," he said. "Transit isn't going to solve every problem, you still need cars. But you can't afford to build roads big enough so there's no delay ... you need to look at a balance."

Under-construction corridor crucial

The future of commuter rail in the Twin Cities also relies heavily on the performance of the Northstar Corridor, officials have said, a line that will run between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake through the northwest suburbs when completed next year.

Ridership numbers on the metro's first modern rail line, the Hiawatha light rail in Minneapolis, have been so high, Rogers said, he expects Northstar to beat projections -- a fact that would be good news for transit advocates in this neck of the woods.

Should Northstar or the planned Central Corridor between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul under-perform, rail transit could fall out of favor with lawmakers and planners before the Red Rock line can be built, Rogers said.

"They're both very important," he said. "Anything that high profile with those costs attached, if they're not successful it will set everything else back."

But Rogers is confident rail transit will catch on. It has nearly everywhere else, he said, why not here?

"The thought of it not happening, " Rogers said, "I just can't see it."

Jon Avise can be reached at javise@swcbulletin.com.

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