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Red Rock study to weigh commuter rail, bus rapid transit in south Washington County

A plan for the future of transit in south Washington County is expected to arrive later this year.

The Red Rock Corridor Commission has begun a nine-month updated study of transit options for the southeast metro corridor that runs from St. Paul, through south Washington County and on to Hastings.

The study will take into account new demographic and census data for the region, a revised cost estimate for commuter rail service along U.S. Highway 61 as well as the operation costs of other existing Twin Cities transit services.

Also, part of this update to a larger 2007 transit review called the Alternatives Analysis will be the consideration of bus rapid transit as a transit alternative, said Lyssa Leitner, a Washington County planner working on the project.

There currently is morning and evening express bus service from downtown St. Paul to Lower Afton Road along Highway 61 in St. Paul and to the Cottage Grove park-and-ride. A transit stop also is planned for Newport.

However, the Red Rock Corridor Commission is working to develop an expanded transit system, citing current and future ridership interest and population growth estimates.

When the study is complete this fall, Leitner said, commission members and the public will be presented with proposed routes, stops and costs for a commuter rail line and similar information for a bus rapid transit system. No transit expansion and continuing the existing express service also will be presented as options.

Leitner said it also is possible the preferred option will be a combination of bus rapid transit in the short term and commuter rail in the long term.

Commuter rail would provide transit service using existing train tracks along Highway 61. Bus rapid transit could include dedicated highway lanes to provide quicker bus commutes.

Commission members are expected to vote on a transit implementation plan late this year.

The study is expected to cost $250,000. Of that, $225,000 is covered through a federal grant and the remaining $25,000 is being paid for by Washington, Dakota, Ramsey and Hennepin counties.

As part of the ongoing study, the commission created a citizen advisory committee that will meet at least twice more this year to provide input. The commission launched a Facebook page for information, conducted an online survey and has reached out to local residents for their transit suggestions in other ways, including at a workshop last week in St. Paul Park.

At the workshop, citizens and local elected officials' priorities for future transit service were a reliable schedule and the location of transit stations along the corridor. Other priorities included the number of stations; speed of service; availability throughout the day; personal safety and vehicle comfort; and the ability to connect to other transit services.

Red Rock Corridor Commission Chairwoman Autumn Lehrke, who supports bus rapid transit, said that option was not considered in the 2007 Red Rock study. While Lehrke has touted advantages of bus rapid transit over commuter rail, including more schedule flexibility, she said she wants the commission's final decision to be "data-driven."

"There's definitely a want and need for transit," said Lehrke, who lives in Cottage Grove and represents south Washington County on the Washington County Board.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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