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Red Rock transit study findings get chilly public reception at public hearing

Linda Stanton of Woodbury expressed her opposition to the proposed bus rapid transit system at a public hearing Thursday at Cottage Grove City Hall. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)

The Red Rock Corridor Commission heard some harsh public comments Thursday on a proposed rapid bus transit system that would run through the southeastern Twin Cities.

Bus rapid transit has emerged as the front-runner in an alternatives analysis update which also considered express bus, commuter rail and “no-build” options.

BRT would augment three existing express bus lines by adding stops every 15 minutes along a 30-mile stretch from Hastings to St. Paul’s Union Depot. The buses would stop at Cottage Grove, Newport and Lower Afton Road before reaching downtown St. Paul.

About 20 people attended the hearing. Those who spoke slammed the project as unnecessary, risky and overly dependent on government subsidies.

Six of the 11 commissioners were present. They did not respond to the comments.

Lyssa Leitner, Washington County Public Works transportation planner, shared the results of the alternatives analysis. Among the four options that were considered, Leitner said, BRT scored the highest combined points in mobility, cost, potential economic development and environmental impact.

Projected 2030 ridership for BRT is 2,420 per weekday, according to the analysis. Commuter rail weekday ridership is estimated at 1,640 per weekday.

Leitner said the buses and stations would replicate the efficiency of commuter rail at a capital cost of $45 million, versus $585 million in capital costs for commuter rail.

Costs for BRT are broken down into $14.3 million for buses, $3.15 million for new infrastructure and $358,000 for right-of-way acquisition.

The estimated annual operating cost for BRT is $3.81 million compared to $5.7 million for commuter rail.

Residents ‘frustrated’

Woodbury resident Linda Stanton said the money would be better spent on adding additional lanes on major highways like Highway 61. She circulated a petition opposing BRT.

“The more I learn of these transit projects the more frustrated I become about the millions and billions of dollars being spent to study a proposed transit system that duplicates already existing express bus service and regular route buses,” she said.

Matthew Behning, of Stillwater, has criticized the project on his  Facebook page “Washington County Watchdog.” He said BRT would not benefit the majority of the taxpayers who would be footing most of the bill.

One of the goals of BRT is to provide commuters with an alternative to driving, particularly on Highway 61, which is projected to become increasingly congested as more people move to the southeast suburbs.

The population is expected to grow by 100,000 over the next 20 years, according the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning body.

Behning criticized the report’s ridership projections as overly optimistic and said BRT would only relieve 5 percent of traffic congestion on Highway 61.

“It’s just costs versus benefits,” he said.

Behning also said that officials distorted the results of a September 2013 survey to make it appear that most citizens approved of BRT, when in fact one-third of the respondents had questioned the cost, convenience and ridership estimates.

Cottage Grove resident Bev Moreland said BRT was another example of government overreach.

“I’m tired of your little wish list that you are just pushing on us for stuff that is not necessary,” Moreland said. “Bus or rails, they can’t go to where the people are. They’re going to have to drive their cars to get a bus or train.”

Clarence “Skip” Soleim is a member a Citizens Advisory Committee for the alternatives analysis. Soleim, of Denmark Township, supports BRT.

Soleim said it would allow people who couldn’t afford cars to commute to the Twin Cities and vice versa. He cited “education” as one of the indirect benefits, since many students in Hastings and other suburbs would depend on all-day bus service to attend colleges and universities in the metro.

The commission approved the final draft plan for the Red Rock Corridor on Dec. 12.

The six commission members present during the recent public hearing included commission chair Autumn Lehrke of Washington County, Barb Hollenbeck of Hastings, Mike Slavik of Denmark Township, Jen Peterson of Cottage Grove, Steven Gallagher of Newport and Cam Gordon of Minneapolis.

The public can comment on the alternatives analysis through Feb.14.

The commission will review public input before their next meeting on Feb. 27. Lehrke said she would not rule out a vote to approve the BRT option at that time.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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