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Bus rapid transit chosen for Red Rock Corridor

The Red Rock Commission’s unanimous vote in support of bus rapid transit as the future of transportation in south Washington County set into motion a long-term plan to connect 30 miles of transit routes from Hastings to St. Paul.

The commission backed the plan at its meeting last month, following the recommendation of the county’s final alternatives analysis update that pitted BRT against three other options—express bus, commuter rail and a “no build” option.

Once fully implemented, BRT would offer commuters and residents all-day transit service.

BRT was the early front runner during the year-long study. Washington County Transportation Planner Lyssa Leitner said it saves taxpayer dollars and provides a more convenient service.

“Over the next few months, the Metropolitan Council and Metro Transit will be undergoing some pretty intense updates to the regional policy plans and regional development plans as we coordinate with those efforts,” Leitner said. “The same goes for Washington County and the (Counties) Transit Improvement Board. We will be looking at making a major shift from a very expensive project to a less expensive project.”

With a price tag of around $45 million in capital costs, BRT, Leitner said, is a more financially feasible option compared to the $585 million needed to get commuter rail off the ground. And when coupled with 2030 projections, which show annual ridership growing by more than 100,000, Washington County Commissioner Autumn Lehrke said BRT is the best option for south Washington County.

“BRT offers the best of both modes but has the cost of buses,” said Lehrke, who is also the chair of the Red Rock Commission. “I have been working very hard on this initiative during my first term and I wanted to make sure we were making data-driven decisions.”

Funding to implement the Red Rock BRT line is estimated at $14.3 million for buses, $3.15 million for new infrastructure and $358,000 for right-of-way acquisition.

Lehrke said roughly half of the project is to be funded with federal dollars, about 30 percent by the Counties Transit Improvement Board, 10 percent from the state of Minnesota and a matching 10 percent from the Washington County Regional Railroad Authority.

With the commission’s approval, the county will begin a phased implementation plan which takes into consideration ridership projections and funding options, as well as data gathered from the first few years the Newport Transit Station is in operation.

Slated for completion later this fall, the Newport Transit Station will provide area commuters with a state-of-the-art public transportation hub that is expected to generate the addition of more residential and commercial projects in Newport.

“The (Washington County) Housing and Redevelopment Authority likes transit-oriented development,” Lehrke said. “One of the things residents and businesses are looking for when it comes to development is infrastructure, whether it’s fiber or roads or all-day transit services. And I think this all-day BRT is going to be a very attractive amenity.”

According to the final AAU study, the first phase pairs Washington County with Metro Transit to increase express bus services to both downtowns as demand within the Red Rock Corridor increases. This phase includes investigating the possibility of providing peak period express services to Minneapolis, determine whether bush shoulder lanes on Highway 61 are warranted, and update the regional transportation policy plan.

Once implemented, BRT would provide commuters the same express bus service on the 361, 364 and 365 existing routes but it would also give area residents who rely on public transportation all-day service throughout the county and to downtown St. Paul.

While BRT is slated to be the transportation mode best suited for south Washington County for the foreseeable future, Leitner said officials will continue to monitor the corridor as transportation needs change.

Despite some commission members still pushing for commuter or light rail services, Leitner said projected figures don’t support it.

“BRT came out on top as the best option because there is more mobility with the all-day service,” she said. “Looking at the 2030 projections, commuter rail doesn’t perform well and we would have a really hard time justifying that amount of capital cost with that low a ridership.”

If commuter rail was implemented, Lehrke said the line would run on existing freight lines, which she said could cause problems with incoming and outgoing cargo.

“I don’t think we should box ourselves in with commuter or light rail,” she said. “I think we have to see how BRT goes.

“With BRT we found a solution that is cheaper and works better and faster,” Lehrke added.