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Red Rock Corridor alternative analysis halfway complete

The Red Rock Corridor Commission and Washington County officials continue to analyze alternate options for the existing and future transit stations from Hastings through Newport.

Now halfway through the alternate analysis, which has a goal date of late November to early December for implementing a transit plan, the county and commission recently discussed four future alternatives: no changes to the existing stations and routes, or a no build, express bus service; bus rapid transit (BRT); or commuter rail.

Lyssa Leitner, Washington County Public Works transportation planner and project manager overseeing the analysis, recently gave the Cottage Grove and Newport city councils an update on the alternatives.

The study shows a no-build option would keep conditions at the existing Metro Transit bus stations in Cottage Grove and at Lower Afton Road and the proposed station in Newport the same and no new infrastructure would be installed. As the population in south Washington County continue to increase, so will the usages of area stations, Leitner said.

If the express bus alternative is chosen, the three current bus lines would continue to run and a new express route would be added during peak periods to provide service at stations in the Red Rock Corridor that are not currently being serviced. Those new routes would include Red Wing, Prairie Island, Hastings and Newport, which would carry passengers to Union Depot in St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis.

An initial evaluation of this option showed ridership south of Hastings was not strong and that there was not a funding model to increase this service in the corridor, especially south of Cottage Grove, Leitner said.

New infrastructure would be in the form of added coach buses and the installation of a bus-only shoulder lane in congested areas.

"It would be a fairly limited amount of new infrastructure," she added.

Emerging as a viable option for the future, the BRT would also continue the three existing bus lines but would bring them to the stations every 15 minutes. Similar in aesthetics to the lightrail, Leitner said the BRT would provide direct access to stations in Cottage Grove and Lower Afton Road.

"It's similar to a train on wheels," Leitner said. "It's a nicer station, people pay before they get on, there is a level boarding platform and the BRT would add an additional service stop in Hastings."

The BRT systems has the opportunity to be an all-day service with buses arriving every 15 minutes. New infrastructure would consist of BRT-specific stations and buses, as well as a bus-only shoulder lane in congested areas.

The all-day service and projected increase in ridership numbers in Cottage Grove and Newport, Leitner said, could make the BRT a candidate for the Small Starts project. Federally funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Small Starts initiative provides grants to fund capital costs associated with fixed guideway systems, extensions and bus corridor improvements.

The fourth option, which Leitner said is the ultimate goal, is the commuter rail. With the metro's billion dollar lightrail endeavor coming to fruition, the commission has set its sights on connecting to the transit system. If implemented, the commuter rail would eliminate the existing three bus routes, provide residents with 10 trips per day, five in the morning and five in the evening, at 30-minute intervals.

The commuter rail would provide service from Red Wing, Prairie Island, Hastings, Cottage Grove, Newport and Lower Afton Road to Union Depot and downtown Minneapolis. Being the most costly, the commuter rail option would require extensive track improvements and the building of new stations along the routes.

The analysis update also included the sharing of public input which was gathered via an online survey of transit users. The top three characteristics of the online survey showed riders rate speed of service as their top request, with availability during the day and reliability of schedules as second and third, respectively. The Red Rock Corridor Commission also noted the same three characteristics as most important during its meeting last month.

Council member Derrick Lehrke expressed his concern for commuter rail versus bus rapid transit, both in cost and availability.

"Bus rapid transit versus the train, I think, is a way better choice," he said, citing the BRT coming every 15 minutes, versus the 10 trips per day the commuter rail is proposed to make. "What happens if you take the train into work and your kid gets sick? How do you get home? I'm still not sold on it altogether. If we keep going for the thing that's four times as expensive, the train may never come."

However, Lehrke added he was happy to see that the transit corridor continues to make headway.

The Cottage Grove Citizen Advisory Committee is scheduled to hear the update later this month and provide additional input. Scheduled for next month, Leitner will provide a technical recommendation for the Red Rock Corridor Commission's consideration with the tentative goal to define a specific plan for the corridor by December.